Confronting the Sitra Ahra

Like Jacob's struggle with the unidentified man, each of us must recognize, confront and struggle with our sitra ahra, our darker side.

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To what degree do you view Jacob's transformation as a symbol of the transformation of the Jewish people? What does this suggest about our people's own national and spiritual growth?

Do you agree with Krochmal's definition of our relationship with God as our "spiritual essence"? What message was Krochmal, the leader of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) in Galicia, conveying to his fellow Eastern European Jews in the mid-nineteenth century? Have there been other times in our people's history when Krochmal's thesis has been proven to be correct?

Do you agree with Barry Holtz's interpretation of the transformation of Jacob's character? If you do, does this mean that Jacob's teshuvah is now complete?

D'var Torah

We like to think of ourselves as decent, enlightened, and rational human beings, motivated only by the best of intentions. Yet experience and honest self-examination tell us that even the most righteous and generous among us possess a murky and more hidden aspect of our psyches. Our rabbinic tradition calls this the sitra ahra, the "other side."

Our sitra ahra can lie deep within our subconscious and disguise itself as virtue. Thus ruthless ambition can masquerade as "work ethic," cruelty and vindictiveness toward others as "honesty and sincerity," vicious gossip and backstabbing as "interest and concern," and two-faced hypocrisy as "keeping the peace." The human capacity for self-delusion is almost limitless.

If the sitra ahra is to be confronted, we must first, like Jacob, ford a river. For Jacob, it was the Jabbok; for us, it is the "River of Denial." Then, like Jacob, we must have the courage to wrestle with the murkiest, seediest, and most offensive side of ourselves--the selfish boor within us, the ruthless schemer within us, the gossip and backstabber within us, the racist, sexist, homophobe, "looks-ist" and, yes, the anti-Semite within us. Only when we have the courage to wrestle with the sitra ahra until dawn can we acquire the blessing of becoming Israel and the battle decoration of a wrenched hip.

Only when we confront our demons can we begin to free ourselves from their spell and become truly whole.

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Rabbi Burt E. Schuman

Rabbi Burt E. Schuman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, PA.