Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

How to face adversity with confidence

Vayetzei

How do you overcome the paralyzing feeling when facing inevitable threatening situations?

Very simple. Just look at them as challenges rather than threats.

But, you ask, how can one achieve this change of perspective that instead of destroying you empowers and motivates?

Two conditions are needed: 1) you must see the benefit that will result through overcoming adversity; 2) you must prepare yourself properly.

In this week’s reading, Vayetzei [1], we read how Jacob left his parents’ home in Beersheba for the house of his maternal grandfather, Bethuel, in Haran. This journey was due to two causes: 1) his brother Esau’s desire to kill him for having received the blessings of their father Isaac in his place and 2) the need to look for a wife, since his parents did not like the lifestyle and values of the local girls.

Let’s transport ourselves for a moment to that time and place:

Life in Beersheba was very tranquil. Jacob lived in his parents’ house, single, with no major worries, and was able to devote all his time to study and personal development. Not only was he forced to suddenly leave this privileged situation, but he had to embark on a path full of predictable as well as unpredictable adversities and challenges. Our sages point out that the name of the city where he was headed, Haran, is related to the Hebrew word Haron (Af) which means “anger”, due to the fact that the conduct of its inhabitants provoked the wrath of G-d. And if that were not enough to give him a good dose of anxiety, his uncle Laban, who lived with Bethuel, was famous for his dishonesty and treachery. Can we imagine a greater contrast than that of the peacefulness of where Jacob was and the environment of adversity where he was going?

What was his mood like at the time?

Anxiety and vulnerability.

The Torah describes [2] how he stopped to pray and how he protected himself against the wild animals as he lay down to sleep in the field.

But it didn’t take long for his attitude to change. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder planted on the ground whose head reached the heavens. He saw angels ascending and descending it. G-d spoke to him, promising His protection, reiterating his promise to give his children the land on which he was lying and blessed the quantity and quality of his offspring. 

When he awoke, he made a promise that if G-d would accompany him and provide him with food and clothing and he would return to his father’s home with spiritual and moral integrity, he would erect an altar in honor of G-d and give Him the tithe of all his wealth.

The Torah then goes on to tell us that “Light of feet, Jacob made his way to the land of the inhabitants of the east.” [3]

The foremost biblical exegete, Rashi, points out that the description regarding the way he set out on his journey Vaisa et raglav, “light of feet”, was due to the promise of Divine protection he has just received.

Jacob did not entertain the idea that an easy future now awaited him; he simply trusted that he was going to be successful. With the assurance he received and the trust that he had he would be able to successfully overcome any challenge.

But it was not enough to have G-d’s promise. One must prepare adequately for the tasks at hand.

How does one prepare to deal with adversity?

Some of the crucial preparations are insinuated in the three conditions Jacob set: 1) food; 2) clothing; 3) returning to his father’s house in no lesser spiritual and moral conditions.

Food nourishes and clothing protects. On the spiritual plane, the Torah is compared to food because its study nourishes us spiritually and, like physical food, by metabolizing it becomes part of us and vitalizes us. The fulfillment of the precepts is compared to clothing because, like clothing, it serves to create a protective layer that shelters and warms us.

In order to face adversity with confidence and joy, it helps to prepare, in addition to practical  strategies, with 1) the study of the Torah that fortifies us internally; 2) the fulfillment of the Mitzvot that protects us externally; and 3) not to lose sight of the ultimate objective of our interaction with the mundane world, namely, to transform the world into a “dwelling place” for G-d (“father’s house”); that all our interactions express the divine origin, presence and purpose of existence.So the tool for dealing with anxiety inspired by this week’s Bible reading would be, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche: He who has a clear “why” can bear and overcome any “how”.

  1. Génesis 28:10 – 32:3
  2. Ibid, 28:11
  3. Ibid,  29:1
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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