Acknowledging struggle peacefully brings biggest gain

When facing obstacles, whether internal or external, there are three general approaches to undoing tension. One approach is to disengage — try to avoid any feelings of conflict. Another is to try to defeat the challenge, and the third way is to accept the situation, engage it and eventually elevate it. This final approach demands the greatest inner strength, but is the most fulfilling victory.
To loosely illustrate these three approaches, let’s take the example of a psychological obstacle, a social interaction and a spiritual victory.
Inner challenges: In personal growth, we encounter challenging times when it’s hard to resist negative feelings — resentment, pain, anger, anxiety and so forth. The natural inclination is to detach from the uncomfortable feeling (escape).
The second response opts to tackle things head-on. Staying aware of what’s going on inside, struggle ensues. The inclination is to resist or overpower negativity by arousing extra willpower.
The third (and often most difficult) approach is not to view struggle as a teaching device — to look inside oneself and ask, “What is this feeling trying to tell me?” In this vein, I once heard someone remark, “So much good suffering is wasted [by ignoring or fighting it, instead of uncovering the lesson].”
Social interaction: An example from the realm of human relations is when we inevitably encounter people who make hurtful comments, or narrow-minded teachers whose main approach in the classroom is punitive rather than education, or people who we see are trying to harm us. The disengagement approach is to “take the high road” — to walk away, leaving the situation alone in order to keep peace — reasoning, “It’s not worth my time.”
The second approach is to size up the perceived opponent and shift into conquer mode, to confront the person, or try and win the battle (or debate by putting them in place — feeling a responsibility to defend, set the record straight or ensure justice).
The third approach is to take a step back, acknowledge what you’re feeling inside, then try to sort through it — to set aside a critically injured ego, listen and learn from any criticism and grow from it. And in the event that an honest discussion arises, make sure to communicate an alternative approach without any animosity.
Applying these three methods to a spiritual philosophy involves the inherent tension between the material and spiritual worlds. In the first approach, the person may desire to escape the responsibilities of what they view as the nonsense, or trappings, of a materialistic world. In the second approach, there is battle, the need to assert priorities. In the third and most comprehensive approach, a person embraces the uncomfortable challenge while recognizing that there must be a hidden purpose — “this is the situation I was given” — then tries to work through it and eventually transform it.
Depending on the circumstances, one of these three approaches — to avoid, overpower or elevate — may be the most appropriate or inevitable. Each has its advantages. Healthy escape, for example, is the most comfortable (in the short term) because you never engage and truly overcome. As a result, the negative emotion or opposition may easily resurface. The second approach can be risky and rough because you need to confront the situation. The third approach likewise has hazards, but the tangible benefit — on all the parties involved — is long-lasting.
In general, these approaches correspond to the biblical characters that appear over the past few weeks’ parshiyot: the forefathers, the 12 tribes and Joseph. The tribes were “shepherds tending to their flock.” In the mystical tradition, this phrase symbolizes the desire to remove tension and discomfort, escaping so that materialistic life does not interfere with spiritual pursuits. On this level, investing mental and physical energy in worldly affairs is viewed in opposition to the momentum of an upward journey toward godliness.
In contrast, the forefathers are the classic example of the chariot, wherein all their limbs and actions are so perfectly in tune with divine purpose that material affairs cannot affect their focus to achieve an eternal mission. They were bold and persistent, and the surrounding nations recognized their enormous spiritual stature and royalty. “And the sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst’” (Genesis 23:5-6).
But the highest level of divine service — uplifting — is epitomized by Joseph, the protected child, the “dreamer” and visionary whose forced descent into a foreign culture and heavy material concerns became a harsh and fierce test. Upon his arrival, he was a servant, promoted to overseeing all matters of his master’s house. At the same time, these occupations never steered him away from his spiritual heights.
“And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand” (Genesis 39:3). Wherever he went, “the Lord was with Joseph, and extended charisma to him; He gave him favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison” (Genesis 39:20), which Joseph always attributed to a godly gift, even as he stood before the king of the land.
It is within the story of Joseph that we find the culmination of what Israel, over the generations, has stood for. Ironically, it was the brothers selling him into slavery, an event that seemed undeniably destructive, that eventually allowed him to become a leader over all of Egypt, distributing sustenance to the entire land.
On the one hand, the entire episode of this lonely journey into Egypt was a fall from grace, both in leaving his family and spiritual comforts. On the other hand, he ended up bringing light with him and causing others to recognize it. The most compelling lesson and theme in the current Torah sections, then, is how amid exile comes prosperity. What appears to be the most difficult situation can evolve into a blessing that penetrates unforeseen areas and people.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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