One day, a boy found a fuzzy caterpillar and put it in a cage as a new pet. Soon, he observed the fascinating metamorphosis as the caterpillar disappeared within a cocoon. He checked the crusty shell daily and eventually noticed a small opening. As he’d hoped, a butterfly was trying to emerge. The boy waited impatiently and feared it was stuck. He took a scissors and gently opened the hole so the creature could escape. Sure enough, the butterfly inched out with a large swollen body and small, misshapen wings. Sadly, those wings never grew properly and the malformed insect spent its last days haplessly crawling around the cage. The boy learned that wings only develop when butterflies mount a tenacious struggle to escape their cocoons. His misguided act of kindness led to the creature’s doom.
Like the butterfly, Judaism teaches that life’s struggles strengthen us and give us the ability to fly. A theological maxim dictates God only gives us tests we can pass. Ideally, we accept our trials as proof of God’s love for us; proof God wants us to maximize our potential. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Tests aren’t an interruption of your life — they are your life.
Parkour is a great example of the value of challenges. It is the growing sport of moving rapidly through an urban environment, negotiating obstacles by running and jumping. I often engage in parkour on hikes when I’m in a rowdy mood, challenging my aerial dexterity bouncing off boulders, tree trunks and ledges. Since I was a kid, in any given cityscape, I am more likely to walk on walls or the edge of the curb rather than the sidewalk. Overcoming barriers is exciting! Parkour athlete Caelan Huntress explains, “In parkour, we do not see the obstacle as an impairment to movement. Indeed, it is the obstacles that make the movements worthwhile.”
The word Yisrael (Israel) means “struggling with God.” Yaakov (Jacob) receives his new name Yisrael when he victoriously wrestles with an angel. He establishes the essence of Jewish meritocracy: to grapple with God and faith and emerge stronger for the effort. We are B’nai Yisrael (Children of Israel), inheritors of this legacy of spiritual pugilism. Avraham, Yaakov’s grandfather, starts this trend. He argues with God to refrain from destroying the evil city of Sodom. Avraham stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, ark-builder Noach, who didn’t consider wrangling with his Creator. Ten generations later, Avraham has the temerity to “go to the mat” with the Creator of the Universe. Hence, he is the first Jew. We share his innate chutzpah and feel comfortable calling God to task. We lead, we speak our mind, we persevere. A case in point: Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir famously insisted her job was more difficult than that of President Richard Nixon. “You may be the president of 250 million people,” she said, “but I’m the prime minister of five million prime ministers.”
Permission to dispute is our divine right as partners in a covenant with the Creator of Heaven and Earth. We confront God for allowing human suffering, for natural disasters, for the Holocaust. Our blessings are voiced using the familiar version of the word “you,” Atah, as in Baruch Atah. God is our debate partner, our peer. According to Dennis Prager, this precept of struggle with the divine has “enabled Jews to believe in the importance of reason—God could be challenged on the basis of reason and morality; one does not have to suspend reason to be a believing Jew.” Chassidic master Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen (1823-1900) argues that humankind ranks above the angels because we are the only creatures in existence sanctifying God through struggle. Mastering the Science of Struggle is an essential skill in the pursuit of the Joy of Judaism, a prerequisite to forging a meaningful relationship with a living God.
One of the most difficult times to embrace our partnership with God is when we are wounded physically or spiritually. When we are depressed, our yetzer harah (evil inclination) convinces us we are worthless, that God doesn’t care. Of course, the opposite is true. The malady from which we suffer is evidence of God’s gentle presence. According to Rabbi David Aaron, “When life gets rough, ask not WHY this is happening but WHAT this happening is asking of me.” The Creator of the Universe roots for our healing, davens to connect with us and exults in our victories.
When we examine the lives of great artists, we find that many have faced profound struggles and hardships. We feel angst in every canvas by Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his lifetime. We taste darkness in every phrase of Edgar Allen Poe, who lost nearly every member of his family and died penniless in a Baltimore gutter. How many entitled children of celebrities fail to achieve their own level of success and are humiliated as tabloids chronicle their demise? How many great musicians never top their hit debut album? Their early repertoire typically chronicles adventures in the trenches as artists claw for recognition. They have years of pathos and poverty during which they compile and perfect their material. Typically, a hastily recorded sophomore release fails to recreate the depth, emotional intensity and popularity of the first album.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution “Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu” (Study Hall of Abraham our Forefather). Avraham’s quintessential trait wasn’t necessarily chesed (kindness)—it was his utter refusal to accept a substandard status quo. Only when he accepted the role of rebel, regardless of his family or society’s reaction, was he able to follow his unfettered logic and reach the revolutionary conclusion of ethical monotheism. Rabbi Cardozo insists our heritage is based on rebellion: we keep kosher as an act of disobedience against eating like an animal; we join a community in prayer rebelling against the tendency to think one can do it alone; we use the mikvah to protest our society’s obsession with sex. We do not commit to mitzvot to fit into religious society or please a wrathful deity. Instead, we perfect the Science of Struggle in order to continuously evolve in our personal power and strive for excellence.
Most Jewish day schools present only 90% of the breadth of Torah. What’s the missing 10%? It’s the “why” of Judaism: why we do mitzvot, why we serve God, why we are different from the other nations of the world, why we merit redemption. Without emphasis placed on communicating this first 10%, observance can become rote and meaningless. Asking fundamental questions should not be seen as heretical; ignoring the “why” of Judaism imperils the Jewish future. Struggle with God isn’t optional! Picture that butterfly without the chance to fight its way out of the cocoon. A butterfly that didn’t struggle is not a butterfly!
The answer to our collective salvation lies in offering each individual the full gamut of opportunities in Jewish life and then granting permission to struggle, to question, to personally engage. Jews are experts at making lemonade out of lemons. Until the day we leave this earth, we must strive for greatness. We are not merely human beings, we are human becomings. Struggle is life. Keep struggling, or else! Like the butterfly, we are writhing and striving and competing, building and breaking and building again. While it is hard to perceive the value and benefit of setbacks when they happen, the challenges we face create the most powerful, beautiful wings; wings allowing us to soar in this dramatic quest of ultimate holiness and humanity.