The Purpose of Struggle

In the introduction to his most recent book, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg relates a legend involving William F. Buckley and George Will. Goldberg writes that when Will was hired to write a twice-weekly column in the Washington Post, he asked Buckley how he could ever come up with material for two columns in a single week. Buckley’s response was something along the lines of “It will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.”

There is no denying the element of catharsis when writers get a chance to put issues that evoke strong feelings into words and, ultimately, a column. This is not relegated to annoyance alone (though it is easier to find two annoying things a week); nearly anything about which a writer has strong emotional feelings can be cause for a column.

I found myself thinking this week about an old friend, one I haven’t seen in a few years. The last time we met — at the simchah of a mutual yeshivah-mate — we had an exchange that I will remember forever.

My friend told me that he just had a baby girl. I noticed that he didn’t relate this besorah tovah with his usual good cheer. My suspicions were confirmed when he told me that the baby had been born with a severe genetic developmental disorder.

I listened to him talk about how his life was forever going to be different since his special daughter was born, but one thing he told me stood out. “Do you know,” he asked, “that of all the different people I told this to, from whom I got the most chizuk? It was one of our rebbeim, Rabbi P. Most people felt the need to tell me how it is a brachah, or other divrei chizuk of that sort. When I told Rabbi P., he said, ‘I’m sure you feel that this is a gezeirah — and it is so hard for you,’ and we spoke to that end a bit. After validating how it was something I will really be struggling with for the rest of my life, he told me, ‘But remember that it is from our struggles that we grow.’”

In the beginning of this week’s parashah, Rashi (Bereishis 37:2) relates that “bikesh Yaakov leishev b’shalvah — Yaakov Avinu wanted to live in tranquility.” After the years on the run from Esav, the dealings with Lavan HaArami, and all the way through having his wife Rochel Imeinu die in childbirth, Yaakov wanted to be free of hardship so that he could serve Hashem in peace. But Chazal tell us that Hashem says, “Lo dayan l’tzaddikim mah shemesukan lahem l’olam haba, elah she’mevakshim leishev beshalvah b’olam hazeh” — and He denies this request for tranquility. That is why the story of mechiras Yosef takes place at this point.

The obvious question is: What is so terrible about Yaakov Avinu wanting to serve Hashem without the distractions caused by struggle? Hasn’t he earned this right after all he has already endured?

In the sefer Chochmah V’daas, Harav Moshe Sternbuch says that Harav Moshe Schneider used to ask his talmidim what brachah they wanted from him when they got married, and he’d comply with their request. One time a chassan asked for a brachah that his life will “go smoothly.” Harav Schneider said, “That’s not a brachah. My brachah to you is that you should have struggles — but you should make it through them.”

A few years back, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman used an appropriate mashal for this in a drashah in Lakewood. He compared struggling to exercising with weights. The only way the exercise has a positive effect is if the weight creates the greatest possible obstacle to the person attempting to lift it. It is precisely that resistance that is responsible for whatever growth comes out of the exercise.

The same is true with the various difficulties in our lives. As frum Yidden, we see everything through the lens of the Torah, and all our struggles are spiritual ones. When we struggle with something, or when we see others struggling, we have to remember that yes, the struggle is real, but it has a purpose. The purpose is our own spiritual growth.

How we approach it depends on who we are. Growth can be public — as evidenced by people who dedicate themselves to sharing the knowledge they gained by undergoing a personal challenge, alone, with others who are facing the same challenge and would benefit by the experience of an empathetic mentor. Or growth can be private; it can mean hours spent connecting to the Borei Olam by davening or working to accept the trials put before every one of us as a chizuk to our emunah and bitachon.

But we have to know why the struggles are there. They exist so that we can grow.