“Who is your toughest opponent?” I ask my karate students.  Sports in general and martial arts in particular, demand self-discipline and perseverance, willpower and hard work – and also the courage to hurt and get hit.  One’s opponent changes throughout one’s life, except for the most challenging, which clings like a shadow:  Oneself.

The Torah portion VaYishlach (Genesis 32) describes our Patriarch Jacob’s return to Canaan, now a wealthy man with four wives, after having spent years in his uncle Laban’s home.  Having fled his own home, for fear his brother Esau would take revenge on him for the theft of his birthright and paternal blessing, Jacob still fears Esau’s wrath.

The Torah describes Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man the night before his fateful meeting with Esau.  In the evening, in the midst of preparing for the meeting with his brother, Jacob was gripped with fears and anxiety.  As the famous commentator Rashi wrote, Jacob “prepared himself for three things: gifts, prayer, and battle.”

Jacob first sends peace offerings to Esau.  After the emissaries who bore the gifts returned with reports of Esau’s large and mighty entourage, Jacob feared for himself and his family: “Jacob was very frightened; in his anxiety he divided the people with him… into two camps, thinking, If Esau attacks one camp, the other might still escape.”

In his distress, Jacob then prays:  “Deliver me, I pray, from my brother’s hand, the hand of Esau.  I fear he will attack me, and the mothers and children.”  Eventually Jacob crosses the river and, all alone, fights the mysterious “man” or “angel”: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn.

As dawn broke following the mighty night-long struggle, Jacob defeated his opponent and was granted his permanent name, which we bear to this day: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel.”

I believe that Jacob’s most significant struggle was not with the mysterious man or angel, or even with Esau.  Jacob was granted the name “Israel” for overcoming himself.  Overcoming his anxieties.  Overcoming the complex of the younger brother who received the birthright and paternal blessing only through his mother’s manipulations.  Overcoming his inhibitions and fears.  Only once he conquered himself, was he worthy of being “our Patriarch Jacob – Israel.”

And from Jacob-Israel to the State of Israel.  Some claim that one of the reasons for the lack of peace, is that Israeli Jews fear the day when we will have no more external enemies and will struggle only with each other… a cynical claim, yet one containing a kernel of truth.

So, while dealing with the “stabbing intifada,” with boycotts and condemnations, with internal protests and more, who or what is Israel’s toughest opponent as it approaches 70?

Looking at Jewish history, we can already see that we have already been through the stage of appeasing our enemies with gifts, and through the stage of fearing catastrophe, such as the “200 days of fear” during the Second World War (known as the “Masada Plan”) and the weeks leading up to the Six Days War, just to name few.  But is the great, true battle, the one after which we receive our permanent name, still ahead of us? If so, what might this battle look like?

  • Closing the growing social and economic disparities?
  • Defining (firstly, to ourselves) the permanent borders of Israel?
  • Dealing with the challenge of sovereignty, after having existed for so long as a minority without sovereignty?
  • Bridging the disparity between ideals and reality, between “the Chosen People” and “just the people of Israel”?
  • Reaching a higher level of tolerance and acceptance of the “other”?
  • Forgiving those who persecuted and tormented us?
  • Translating the commandment “to till it and to tend it” (Genesis 2:15) into keeping the land and air of Israel clean?

And maybe, all of the above battles combined and more, comprise Israel’s toughest opponent?

One’s opponent changes throughout one’s life, except for the most challenging, which clings like a shadow: Oneself.

Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee.  He serves as Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.  Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution and serves as President of the Harvard Club of Israel.  He is the author of “Son of My Land” and can be contacted at: melamed.sagi@gmail.com.

This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.