Jacob’s guide to emotional health

In the Book of Genesis, the bible relates of the confrontation of two long estranged brothers. Jacob escaped from his parents’ home in fear of his brother Esau from whom he’d robbed their father’s final blessing. Now, when the scene is set, it is thirty-five years later and Jacob heard rumors that his brother is coming to meet him, so Jacob sent messengers to get exact details:

“The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’ Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord… I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant… Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike… After spending the night there, he selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau… For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”” (Genesis 32:7-21)

Our sages take note that Jacob prepared for the dangerous encounter with three different methods, or plans.

  • War [see first bolded sentence]
  • Prayer [see second bolded sentence]
  • Bribery [see last bolded sentence]

 

Let’s examine theses three approaches and attempt to apply them to our own struggles in our day-to-day lives.

War

If examine the verses closely, we realize a fascinating phenomenon in Jacob’s approach to war. Our common understanding of war is, that two parties fight each other with the objection to defeat their enemy. Thus, the fate of the loser will determine the winner. In all of history I don’t think there was an army that fought purely defensive. Jacob, however, has no intention to harm Esau in any way. There’s no reference even to offensive warfare, like preparing weaponry or planning an ambush etc. from Jacob’s part. Moreover, our sages teach, that when the verse states that Jacob was frightened and anxious, “he was frightened he will get killed and anxious that he might kill others.”

Instead, Jacob’s strategy was, to separate a group of his people and take them off the battlefield; so that even Esau will triumph there will still be some who will survive. For, Jacob understood that Esau is an experiences warrior and has strong chances of winning. If Jacob would invest all energy and manpower at hand, he risked losing everything; and that’s a dangerous gamble. By removing the most he can from the eye of the storm he weakened his fortress and shifted the war to his disadvantage, but ensured a win outside of this particular battle.

In our struggle with ourselves, we have to learn from our ancestor Jacob. First and foremost, we should understand that as hard as we fight we stand a very strong chance of losing. That is not pessimistic, it is the reality we learn from our previous struggles. If we invest all our emotional strength and mind space for the subject in which we struggle, we risk complete decimation might we be defeated. Jacob teaches us to approach the battlefield i.e. smoking, alcohol, anger etc. by investing our energy in areas where we feel secure, where our positioned is not in jeopardy. For instance, if you are struggling with addiction engage in kindness; if you struggle with anger, be very truthful and wake up on time. This will make you feel good about yourself and ensure that even if you didn’t win over your enemy, you are not completely devastated, you still have something to yourself. You might be wounded and bruised, but you’re still standing on two feet.

Prayer

The undertone of Jacob’s prayer is utter hopelessness. He tells God, “I’m not worthy… I fear he may come and strike me down…” Jacob stared at his shortcomings and saw no path to victory. Esau was a hunter from young age, he was a man of the field; he was familiar with weaponry and physically built for strife. Jacob spent his time studying and shepherding, he didn’t know which way to hold a sword or a bow-and-arrow. Esau was a general of 400 men, Jacob was an exhausted father of twelve and husband of four wives. It would be foolish and suicidal for Jacob to think he is a match for Esau. So he surrendered and turned to God.

Let’s face it, we are weak. We need to make a living, raise children, build and sustain relationships, watch our health and balance responsibilities. We are tired and maxed out even before we appear on the battlefield. Our inclinations, on the other hand, have none of that. No job or family, no emotions or feeling, they only crave and lust. Their only job is to make us crazy by craving and lusting. For that they have an army of immorality and billion dollar industries targeting our intrigue and interest. The only match for our restless and relentless enemy is God. Surrendering to God in our area of test and outside of it, makes us stronger and safer. For God is Almighty and nothing can win over Him. By turning to Him and handing Him your weak sword, you chose the strongest General and undefeated Warrior.

Bribery

Jacob knew his brother well. He understood that an angry bloodthirsty man can be satisfied by a small gift and thereby avoiding or significantly minimizing the chance of face-to-face battle. In the same fashion, we should offer our craving beast what it appreciates before it challenges our morality or spirit. Good food with measure, safe sports that you enjoy, traveling to interesting place, balanced and steady sexual relationships, are all satisfying and will calm our lusting, or at least make them controllable.

My brothers and sisters, we live for this struggle. It was why we were born. “Man is born to trouble” (Job 5:7) Follow the lead of Jacob and you will survive. Maybe bruised and bleeding, but standing tall and proud!

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