In this week’s parsha, our father Yaakov, fresh from his successful escape from Lavan, prepares to encounter his brother and sworn enemy, Eisav. He sends malachim to deal with Eisav before he will actually meet with him face to face. The word malachim signifies two different meanings. One is that it means agents, messengers, human beings who were sent on a particular mission to do Yaakov’s bidding. The other meaning is that the world malachim signifies angels, supernatural messengers of God who were sent to Yaakov to help him in his fateful encounter with his brother.
Rashi cites both possible interpretations in his commentary. When Rashi does so, he is teaching us that both interpretations are correct at differing levels of understanding the verse involved.
A plain reading of the text suggests (at least to me) that Jacob sent human beings as messengers to his brother Esau rather than supernatural angels. It makes the most sense given the context. However, there is another encounter Jacob has with the supernatural that bears scrutiny.
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.
–Genesis 32:25-33 (JPS Tanakh)
A man comes out of nowhere in the middle of the night, encounters Jacob and starts wrestling with him. Amazingly, both fighters have the strength and stamina to sustain their combat for many hours until dawn nears. The intruder then pleads with Jacob to release him because the sun is coming up, but rather than demanding who the person is and why he attacked him, Jacob asks his fellow combatant to bless him.
At least from this translation, we only learn that the “person” who attacked Jacob was supernatural when we arrive at verse 31:
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
It is commonly believed that Jacob wrestled with an angel of God, but some believe is was some form of incarnate God Himself, while others believe it may have been a “pre-incarnate Jesus.”
But from Rabbi Wein’s commentary, we can assume, at least on the surface, that the mysterious fellow could either have been human or an angel.
Who was Jacob wrestling with? If it was an angel, why couldn’t the angel defeat a mere moral? When the attacker couldn’t defeat Jacob, why did he injure Jacob’s hip? Why did the “angel” attack Jacob in the first place?
Our problem is that if Jacob is truly alone, who can be wrestling with him? One possible answer is — no one! Jacob is actually wrestling with himself. This would explain the ambiguity in the passage. However, by solving the textual problem (if indeed we are correct), we have raised an even greater problem: Why would a sane man wrestle with himself? A careful reading of the text may give us some insight.
The “man” is referred to in Hebrew as an ish. And we find another verse — a great deal less enigmatic — in which it is apparent that the ish is clearly Jacob.
-Rabbi Ari Kahn
“Vayishlach: The Struggle of Jacob”
from M’oray Ha’Aish: Advanced-level Commentaries on the Weekly Parasha
OK, you’re probably not buying that, but I think the interpretation has merit, even as a metaphor. However, this isn’t the only way to look at this encounter:
Who is this man with whom Jacob wrestled? According to the Sages, he is the “angel of Esau,” and their struggle, which “raised dust up to the Supernal Throne,” is the cosmic struggle between two nations and two worlds — the spirituality of Israel and the materiality of Edom (Rome). The night through which they wrestled is the long and dark galut (“exile”), in the course of which Jacob’s descendants suffer bodily harm and spiritual anguish, but emerge victorious.
-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Wrestling with Angels”
I suppose it makes more sense, especially when considering that Jacob realized he had been wrestling with a divine being. This operates as another metaphor and even on a prophetic level. The descendants of Jacob will be attacked by the descendants of Esau and although the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, will be injured, sometimes terribly, and carry the marks of their injury forward through history, they will ultimately prevail.
But let’s get back to the immediate situation Jacob was facing:
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps
–Genesis 32:7-8 (JPS Tanakh)
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.
-Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Fictional heroes may face danger and death without fear, but real men and women are afraid all the time. Jacob had a lot of good reasons to be afraid. In fact, fear was one of his primary motivations for leaving his home in Canaan and seeking refuge, such as it was, in the home of his kinsman Laban.
For twenty years, Jacob labored under extremely difficult conditions, married, raised a family, went from being in poverty to becoming very wealthy. He, his family, his servants, and his livestock had all just survived the pursuit and threat of destruction represented by Laban, but now Jacob must face his oldest foe and his greatest adversary: his brother Esau.
Jacob had done everything he could think of, everything humanly possible to appease Esau and to create a circumstance between them that wouldn’t immediately result in armed conflict when they finally met, but Jacob had a bigger enemy than Esau: this own fear and perhaps even guilt.
No matter which way you look at it, Jacob not only removed Esau’s birthright and blessing from him, on both occasions, he had done so by guile and trickery, even to the point of deceiving his own father Isaac. Such a thing for the grandson of the sage and tzaddik Abraham to do. One dream about angels at his exit from Canaan, and he’s gone.
What results from Jacob’s fight with the stranger in the dark?
- Jacob is permanently disabled, walking with a limp for the rest of his days.
- Jacob is blessed with the name “Israel” because he combatted with the divine and was victorious.
- Jacob not only survived the encounter with Esau, but was welcomed by his brother back into Canaan.
And [Esau] said, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” But he said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Then Esau said, “Let me assign to you some of the men who are with me.” But he said, “Oh no, my lord is too kind to me!” So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth.
–Genesis 33:12-17 (JPS Tanakh)
Alright, Jacob also didn’t trust his brother Esau as far as he could throw him, so he lied. Instead of following Esau at a slower pace, he detoured to Succoth, avoiding any future meeting with his brother.
All night long, Jacob struggles with his success. His spiritual self and his physical self collide as he tries to determine his true identity. But Jacob is unable to resolve this conflict.
In the resolution that is finally achieved, the physical realm is forced to yield. Laws, like that of the hip tendon, Gid HaNashe, will create spiritual boundaries within physical experience, making possible the elevation of the physical world to a spiritual plane.
-Rabbi Ari Kahn
Rabbi Kahn sees the struggle as the conflict between the physical and spiritual forces within Jacob. Would he join with his brother Esau and combine wealth, denying his spiritual destiny as the inheritor of Abraham and Isaac, or would he defeat his baser self, and become the true father of Israel?
Kahn says the outcome is obvious and reflected in Jacob’s refusal to accompany Esau and rather, to pursue a higher destiny.
Rabbi Tauber sees the victory a little bit differently:
It is a long and difficult struggle till dawn. But in the end we triumph over men and prevail over the divine as well. For this is the essence of Israel.
Rabbi Tauber sees Jacob defeating both the forces of evil that Esau’s angel represents and the divine itself, illustrating that it will always be Israel’s destiny to contend, even with God. This may sound like a bad thing, but it has merits.
A relationship with God always involves struggle. The worst thing a person of faith can do, even worse than becoming an apostate, is to take faith for granted and become apathetic.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
–Revelation 3:15-18 (NASB)
Sometimes it takes a crisis to shake us out of apathy. Like the church at Laodicea, Jacob had become rich. He was in danger of taking God’s blessings for granted. The angel of Jacob delivered the same message as the angel to the church in Laodicea (although the message of the Master may have been delivered by a human messenger rather than an angelic being). Do not be lukewarm. It would be better if you were cold than lukewarm. Do not let your material wealth fool you. You are miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Only through God can you be rich with true riches.
So what was the ultimate achievement attained by Israel’s struggle with God?
God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.”
Thus He named him Israel.
And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land.”
–Genesis 35:9-12 (JPS Tanakh)
It may seem disrespectful and even dangerous to struggle against or contend with God, but remember, in the example we have with Jacob, God started it. Jacob was alone in the dark. He was afraid. He was uncertain. He did everything humanly possible to deal with his fears and to protect his family, but he didn’t know what was going to happen.
God knew all of this and challenged Jacob. It doesn’t look like Jacob had much of a choice. He could either fight off his attacker or surrender. Jacob chose to fight. He couldn’t afford to be “lukewarm” in this situation. He fought back and he won, not because he literally defeated God, but he defeated the challenge God set before him, the one Jacob had to defeat in order to overcome his fears; in order to become Israel, father of a nation, patriarch of an empire.
Most of us aren’t going to be the father or mother of a nation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges we must overcome in order to advance God’s plan and to grow spiritually. We can take from Jacob’s example that our challenges aren’t always easy. We can also see that God doesn’t always step in and overwhelm our challenges for us and in fact, sometimes He is the challenge, and we must contend against Him.
Even when we don’t escape such struggles unscathed, in the end, if we persevere, the injuries are worth the blessing.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
–2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NASB)