One day, I may give a sermon titled: "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Pagan Philosopher." This is thanks to the book, The Art of Living ,1 by Sharon Lebell. In this book, Lebell, an author and musician from the Bay Area, distilled the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, making it easy to understand. His life view in a nutshell: We cannot control external conditions. All we can do is be true to our own high ideals. You can also learn about Epictetus' teachings from Tom Wolfe's novel, A Man in Full.2
The hero of the novel, Charlie Croker, appears at first glance to be "a man in full." A one-time college football star, he goes on to become a successful Atlanta real-estate developer who has "the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn't want, didn't need, and never thought about before."3 But when a big project does not pan out, Charlie loses much of his wealth and faces the struggle of his life.
In the Book of Genesis, there exists a character rather like Charlie; a man who also finds that his personal control over life is actually quite limited. His name is Jacob, the trickster who first outwits his elder brother Esau, getting Esau to sell his birthright for a pot of stew, and then disguises himself as Esau in order to receive his father's blessing.
In time, the machinations catch up with Jacob, just as they do with Charlie. In this portion, Vayishlach, Jacob fears his brother Esau, who threatened to kill him 20 years ago and is now coming to meet him—with 400 men. Jacob tries to protect himself by dividing his camp in half and putting together a set of impressive gifts for his brother. Greatly afraid and distressed, he prays that God will deliver him from Esau. But just before his fateful meeting with Esau, Jacob finds himself engaged in a supernatural struggle. He wrestles a stranger at Peni'el, and the two of them fight until daybreak. This turns out to be an encounter with the Divine, one that allows Jacob to see God "face-to-face" (Genesis 32:31). It's a wrestling match that knocks his hip out of joint, but gives him a new name and makes him—for the first time, we might say—"a man in full."
What is a man in full? In Wolfe's book, we see that improving one's choices and emotions, as taught by Epictetus, can lead one to be hopeful. In Genesis, Jacob trusts the promises of God and asks for a blessing, even when he might well despair. He believes that he'll find a way through his problem, just like Charlie Croker, who remains hopeful even when his ambition and ego must confront his staggering debt and the loss of his reputation.
Unfortunately, hope alone is not the answer to wholeness either. Hope often cannot be the solution to our problem. Sometimes unrealistic hope actually is part of the problem. Both Jacob and Charlie were driven by hope, and paralyzed by the fear that what they hoped for couldn't be achieved.
We get closer to the truth when we understand that to be a full human being is to have some brokenness. Jacob has a dislocated hip, and Charlie has a banged-up right knee from his days in football. Naturally, our brokenness includes more than physical pain: life can be full of heartbreaking disappointments. As Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, "Nothing is as whole as a broken heart." To be a full human being is to acknowledge the breaks.
To be a full human being is also to be open to reconciliation. When Jacob encounters Esau, he is in awe of his brother's forgiving embrace. Charlie Coker has a similar shocking and pleasant realization. After years of defining his well-being in terms of his money, his reputation, and his success in worldly affairs, Charlie realizes that the one true source of strength is available elsewhere.
Epictetus was a Stoic who spoke of discipline and self-reliance. We Jews can learn a lot from that teaching. But more important is the recognition that, for each of us, reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with others is the essential path to a life that is satisfying, strong, healthy, and whole. Jacob is exactly right when he looks at his brother at their reunion and says, "to see your face is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10).
Are you a man in full? A woman who is fully human?
1. Sharon Lebell, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness (New York: HarperOne, 1995)
2. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
3. Ibid., p. 75
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of in Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).