In the famous incident in which Jacob wrestles with an angel, Jacob emerges with a limp. Among the ways that this incident is often interpreted, one popular way is to see Jacob as wrestling with himself. Jacob is a character with some troubling characteristics, who has performed actions that are difficult to justify. At this point in his life, as Jacob prepares for a reunion with his brother Esau who, twenty years earlier, had sought to kill Jacob after Jacob had stolen the birthright and blessing from him, Jacob revisits his youthful transgressions and struggles with the deepest drives and inclinations of his personality. The wrestling is the beginning of Jacob’s process of teshuvah, atonement. Jacob’s limp is the mark of that struggle and the sign that he has been transformed by it.
Here’s another way of considering this story, along similar lines, of Jacob wrestling with himself. The question that is central to this story is, What has changed in Jacob? One answer was given above: Jacob acknowledges that he has deceived his brother and resolves to reconcile with him. But what if we were to take the limp not as a new condition but as something that Jacob has had all along? What has changed for Jacob is not that he now has a limp and before he didn’t, but that he had tried to hide his limp previously and now he is able to let other people see it. He accepts his challenge and is no longer ashamed of it. If this interpretation seems forced to you, replace “limp” with “propensity for deceit” or whatever inner demon Jacob struggles with.
This image of Jacob struggling with a challenge that he has tried to hide from others resonates deeply with me. As people who have spent time in my company learn sooner or later, I have a condition known as ET, essential tremor. (I love the connection of the initialism with a famous movie alien—whose name fortuitously is the same as mine!) ET is not so widely known and is often confused with Parkinson’s, which is a completely different condition. (An obvious distinction: the hands of people with Parkinson’s tremble constantly, except when they are performing an action; the hands of people with ET generally do not shake, except when performing an action.) Ten times as many people have ET than Parkinson’s: in the US, the numbers are roughly 10 million versus 1 million.
I first showed symptoms of ET in kindergarten. In my earliest memory of it, I was at a birthday party, competing in a race to see who could go the fastest and farthest while carrying a hard-boiled egg on a spoon. (Not my best event.) For most of my childhood, I was mortally embarrassed by my condition and tried my best not to let others know I had it. And depending upon the severity of the condition, ET is something that can often be hidden, that is not always apparent. It becomes most obvious when manipulating objects such as tools, silverware, cups with liquids.
Although ET is a physical condition, the neurological basis does have a psychological dimension that makes the condition more difficult to confront. The tremor is worse in certain situations than in others; for me, it can flair up more when I am in public or outside the comfort of home. I remember that when I was a child and young adult I would do everything I could not to have others notice my tremor. I would especially make sure not to drink, not to lift a cup or glass. Being so conscious of my tremor and attempting to suppress it had the paradoxical effect of making the tremor not only worse but a bigger part of who I was.
It was only when I reached my late 20s that I had my “Jacob moment” and tried to take a different approach. I decided that the cost of trying to hide this condition was no longer worth it. My tremor is a part of who I am, no different than the myriad struggles that affect people, all people. Whereas previously I had thought my tremor was what made me different from everyone else, I came to realize that actually it was something that made me resemble other people. A tremor is not so different from a host of conditions that people often try to hide, that may lie just below the surface—whether it’s sexual identity, an eating disorder, vision or hearing impairment, or psychological conditions such as depression etc. Each condition is unique and quite different from others, but in the larger picture, every person is confronted with challenges of different kinds and must find his or her own way of facing them.
Question for schools:
What do you do to help students, as well as faculty and other employees, have the support and resources they need to confront their challenges?