The Science of Struggle

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 for the butterfly to emerge. The boy waited impatiently and feared it was stuck. So he took a pair of scissors and gently opened the cocoon so the creature could escape. Sure enough, the butterfly inched out with 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. Tests aren’t an interruption of your life — they are your life.

Take the word Yisrael (Israel), which means “struggling with God.” Jacob receives this news when he 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. Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, starts this trend. He argues with God to refrain from destroying the evil city of Sodom.  Hence, he is the first Jew.

As his descendants, we share his innate chutzpah and feel comfortable calling God to task. We lead, we speak our mind, we persevere. A case in point: Israeli 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 God. 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.” 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.

Permission to dispute is our divine right as partners in a covenant with God.

Mastering the science of struggle is an essential skill in pursuing 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 physically or spiritually wounded. When we are depressed, our yetzer harah (evil inclination) convinces us we are worthless, that God doesn’t care. But 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.” God 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. How many great musicians never top their hit debut album, where they clawed for recognition?

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution “Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu” (Study Hall of Abraham our Forefather). He insists our heritage is based not on Abraham’s trait of kindness but instead on his courage to rebel against a substandard status quo. 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 to please a wrathful deity. We perfect the science of struggle in order to evolve in our personal power and strive for excellence.

Most Jewish day schools present only 90% of the breadth of the 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! 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. 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.

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 that allow us to soar in this dramatic quest of ultimate holiness and humanity.

Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:30 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.


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