It’s been a hell of a year. Are they all like this or was this one just so intense and filled with so many shocking moments that we were reeling from what was happening both during and after. What did it all mean for our children, for our society, our future and us? We struggle with how to respond. We always do. Genesis tells us the story of Jacob wrestling with an unknown man ultimately forcing a blessing and a new name out of his protagonist. Jacob becomes Israel – the one who struggles with God and what it means to believe, to affirm goodness in a dark and fractured world, to stay true to our core values.
Different religious traditions describe this struggle differently. One of the words in the Muslim tradition for this process is Jihad. Yes, it can refer to a holy war against non-believers, but at its essence it speaks to the internal battle that wages within us between doing what is right living to our highest standards and doing what is expedient and giving in to our base fears. You can position this process in many different frames. Some scaffold it within a religious setting, speaking about the need to submit to the will of God or Allah or Jesus or HaShem (all basically synonyms for the Unknowable). Some frame it within a spiritual and ethical self-improvement venue articulating the need for balance and living in sync with the laws of nature and society. No matter where you are positioned, all of us struggle.
In Judaism we call it the tension between the “Yetzer Hatov and the Yetzer HaRa” – the Good and the Bad Inclination. (Don’t read too much into those words “good” and “bad”, it is way too complicated for 500 words.) Just know we are always weighing our options. No matter what the situation, we choose where to live internally. Shall I live with the fear of terrorism; shall I dwell in the resentment of my freedom of movement being curtailed; shall I sit with the frustration of knowing that Big Brother is listening and George Orwell’s “1984” is closer to prophecy than science fiction. And whom shall I blame and how shall I direct my anger?
As a nation we are in that moment right now. There are those who feed our fears and tell us that the solution is to label those who follow Islam our enemies. There is a tendency to want to find that scapegoat with talk of walls and religious identity cards.
All of that tells me that we need to acknowledge that as real as the problem is outside of us that there are people with guns and bombs who want to destroy our way of living, there is also a challenge inside as well. We need smart and effective ways of dealing with the external threat and we need a conscious awareness that there is a struggle going on a gut level between our fears and darker instincts to close down and circle the wagons and our higher aspirations to be welcoming and open to people in need and ideas that challenge. Islam as a spiritual tradition has much to teach. The word Jihad reflects that struggle. It is an internal process of choosing hope rather than fear, faith rather than despair, acceptance and understanding rather than rejecting and stereotyping those who call God by a different name. We need to be willing to learn from all our traditions and we need to live in that struggle. Out of it comes blessing.