As some of you know, the latest Star Wars movie is due out on December 15. Although I would have preferred Han Solo and Princess Leia riding off into the sunset, the movie moguls favor profit over happy endings.
There is however, a recurring Star Wars theme which relates well to this week’s episode of the Jacob saga. Throughout the Star Wars franchise both the heroes and the villains confront the dark side; part of one’s personality and character inclined toward evil. The villains succumb to the dark side; the heroes struggle to resist it. Whatever the characters decide, the series makes self-evident that a dark side exists within each of us. Our challenge is not to deny its existence; but to overcome its temptations.
For me, the most powerful dark side episode occurs when Luke is training to become a Jedi knight. He enters a dark forest, where he encounters an image of Darth Vader; supreme spokesperson for the dark side. In the course of their simulated confrontation, Luke strikes down Vader. Upon removing Vader’s helmet/mask; Luke discovers that the fallen face before him is not Vader’s-but that of Luke himself. The scene suggests that Luke’s biggest challenge is not to conquer Vader, but to conquer the dark side demons within himself. Only when Luke can overcome those personal demons, will he gain the confidence, the character and the skill to confront the real Vader.
Now, for the Jacob analogy. In reading the portion of Vayishlakh this week, Jacob learns that his estranged brother Esau is marching toward him with several hundred men. The Torah suggests that Esau seeks revenge for Jacob having stolen the first born blessing twenty plus years earlier.
Jacob’s initial reaction is impulsive and even shocking. He divides his camp into two groups; hoping that if Esau attacks one half of Jacob’s clan, the other half will escape. What parent among us would advocate such a calculating and irresponsible plan? Before executing the plan however, Jacob finds himself alone; in the middle of the night near a river. Without warning, a figure emerges out of nowhere to attack Jacob in this solitary location. The bout lasts all night; with Jacob eventually prevailing (albeit he was wounded). The Torah suggests that the enigmatic provocateur was an angel; who then blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel.
My belief is that Jacob’s adversary was neither an angel, nor the image of Esau. The adversary was Jacob, himself. To this point Jacob has survived on guile, deceit, and luck. He has often escaped from danger by running away. Now, with a considerable family and with no place to run or hide; he must confront his retribution-seeking brother. This time, Jacob has no alternative but to meet his brother face to face. Alone at night, he is anxious and scared. The demons from his past are re-emerging; no longer suppressed. Jacob’s struggle that night is with his dark side; with the more nefarious aspects of his character. Only by conquering the dark side will Jacob be able to both confront his brother and to truly emerge as the strong and responsible leader of his clan. That night by the river, Jacob faces himself. He finally emerges successfully-though physically (and probably emotionally) wounded. That night by the river, Jacob permanently and conclusively ‘defeats’ his dark side.
No matter how noble and decent we are; all of us live with a dark side. In Judaism, one of the terms for that dark side is yetzer hara (generally translated as the evil inclination). That inclination cannot be destroyed; only conquered. Every day, in some form or another, we are challenged by that dark side; which can alter how we think, speak or act. Our task is to remain vigilant in overcoming the dark side; and to emerge stronger-not only physically-but morally and spiritually as well.