Being a fighter isn’t a value that Judaism promotes unless it is in the act of self-defense. But there are ways we do glorify other references to fighting. We talk about fighting for justice, fighting for what’s right. We sometimes talk about fighting the Yetzer Hara (the evil inclination).
They didn’t even know each other’s names.
It was an epic fight. It lasted all night long. And it basically ended in a draw. And when it was over, as they lay across from each other, probably catching their breath (at least one of them), they had to ask each other their names. The angel of God asks Yaakov his name and in turn Yaakov asks the angel his name. Yaakov gives an answer. The angel doesn’t. It’s not important. Yaakov’s is important. The new name he is given seems to be the message of the story. “Your name will no longer be Yaakov, it will be Yisrael, because you successfully ‘struggled’ (the same root letters as Yisrael) with God and with man.”
What happened here? Apparently, for the first time in Yaakov’s life, he attacked a problem head-on. He didn’t shy away from a challenge. He didn’t use some trickery to steal a victory. He stayed and fought, and struggled, and got a little banged up in the process but lived to fight another day. It was such a monumental moment for him that his name changed. His essence changed forever from a trickster to a fighter. And we, Am Yisrael, were the beneficiaries.
Yaakov’s adversary wasn’t important. Meeting the challenge was.
Being a fighter isn’t exactly a value that schools promote. In fact, fighting brings with it an automatic suspension from school. Being a fighter isn’t a value that Judaism promotes unless it is in the act of self-defense. But there are ways we do glorify other references to fighting. We talk about fighting for justice, fighting for what’s right. We sometimes talk about fighting the Yetzer Hara (the evil inclination).
And in another significant sense, we encourage struggling to do your best. A popular word in today’s education lexicon is ‘grit.’ In my house growing up it was (excuse me) ‘tuchus.’ The ability to stick with something, to fight through difficulties, fight over obstacles. Resilience. To get up off the mat like Yaakov may have done during that long night. School isn’t only about learning how to handle success but also about handling failure and what happens next. It’s about acquiring the courage to try again.
Thursday morning, Israeli basketball legend and former UConn player, Doron Sheffer visited WDS. He asked our middle school students which is better: to cheat and get a 100 or to be honest and get an 80? Of course the answer was the 80. It might be a stretch but it’s possible that that was the lesson Yaakov learned. Doron continued and said that basketball taught him to win and lose with dignity. A loss with dignity was worth more than a win without.
Yaakov’s adversary wasn’t important. It was his willingness to engage the seemingly endless challenge. The adversary could be a difficult math problem, a long essay, an ethical dilemma, a disagreement with a teacher or friend or family member. In these kinds of struggle, what’s important is us, not our opponent.
And yes, this applies even in actual sanctioned competitions with others. Somehow, we have kept one of WDS’ most amazing accomplishments under wraps for far too long. Did you know that WDS’ Debate Team has gone undefeated since May of 2013? This past week, the Debate Team, debating the resolution “The United States should continue to pursue military action against ISIS and ISIL”, won First Place School, First Place Team (schools split their teams into pairs), Second Place Team, First Place Speaker and Second Place Speaker, out of 4 schools and 32 competitors! Under the professional leadership of Ms. Rachel Piven (6th and 7th Grade ELA) and the volunteer leadership of Diana Gitig, the team has demonstrated the values of grit, dignity…and Tuchus!
In the movie, The Great Debaters, the drama based on the true story of Wiley College’s debate with Harvard in the 1935 National Championships, one of the characters says:
Who's the judge?
The judge is God!
Why is he God?
Because he decides who wins or loses, not my opponent!
Who's your opponent?
He doesn't exist!
Why does he not exist?
Because he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth I speak!
Yaakov never learned the name of his opponent because it wasn’t important. It was his own name, his own readiness to struggle in general that was important.
We will lose a debate someday. But not for lack of trying.