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Wrestling with Angels

Wrestling with Angels

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Perhaps the most mysterious incident in the Torah's account of Jacob's life is the night-long battle described in the closing verses of the 32nd chapter of Genesis.

Jacob is preparing for his encounter with Esau the next day. He ferries his family across the Yabbok stream, but "remained behind alone" (according to the Talmud, he stays to retrieve some "small jars" of his that were left behind). There, "a man wrestled with him until dawn." Jacob is injured in the struggle, but is undefeated. At daybreak, Jacob's combatant pleads with him to let him go. Jacob says: "I will not let you until you bless me." The man accedes and confers upon him the name Israel, "because you have struggled with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed." (Israel, Yisrael in the Hebrew, means "he who prevails over the divine.")

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.

The struggle is conducted on two planes -- "with the divine and with men." It is a struggle with men: in nearly 4000 years of galut we have wrestled with the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany and Islamic terror. These and many others did their worst to destroy us, yet we have prevailed.

It is also a struggle with the soul of galut, with its Divine essence and purpose. Thrice daily we plead, protest and contest before the Supernal Throne: How much longer? Yes, it is true that these struggles have roused the highest and deepest potentials of the Jewish soul. Yes, it is true that galut has unearthed reserves of faith and wisdom such as would never have been actualized by a tranquil people enjoying a tranquil existence. Yes, it is true that we are fulfilling the cosmic plan in retrieving the Sparks of Holiness buried in the darkest reaches of G-d's creation. But how much longer must we linger over these "small jars"? And surely You, the essence of Kindness and Goodness, could have devised a way to achieve all this without all the evil and pain!

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.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Discussion (13)
February 23, 2014
Wrestling with angels
The angel wrestling Jacob says let me go for it is to be dawn? Why would the angel not fight when there was light? Was he afraid to be seen?
Sipho Nkosi
South Africa
September 19, 2012
Brilliant insight, EdinPoe
Thank you for your thoughtful insights on Jacob's journey. I love the Scriptures and their very personal and spiritual relevance. We are all nomadic in one way or another, if we are alive, and therefore can relate to the long nomadic, sometimes very difficult journeys of G-d"s chosen people.
Mary Borge
Western Springs, IL
September 29, 2011
And he limped from that battle...
That this passage is of great import is that it is commemorated with the first Kashrut law given just to the Nation of Israel to obey - not to eat the meat around the siatic nerve. All the rest of the kashrut laws are organized separately in a whole book. He limps because he can no longer Walk Tamim as GrandFather Abraham had taught him. This was the wrestling that Jacob encountered with the Divine for those who think you can't wrestle with the Divine. Jacob has mastered the act of 'Standing Before HaShem Tamim" (the test of the Brit Milah) that Abram had eventually learnred to Do, i.e. after his Circumcision.

For the story of Abraham is all about walking, and a story that came from the soul of a nomadic people would embed their mystery in How You Walked thru Life.

Abraham's story is littered with words about walking. None for the other patriarchs, in comparison. This is a mystery passed down in a non-oral/non-written tradition, that of body-language.
EdinPoe
Balt., MD
September 10, 2011
it's symbolic
This is not a struggle between a man and a heavenly entity. It is a story, like a fairytale, in all likelihood, inspired by a dream. As in Grimms and other age-old myths, archetypes are called forth, different aspects of a person's profound personality. One interpretation could be: the ongoing battle between light and dark, good and evil. The protagonist is trying to come to terms with competing tendencies, to order, to prioritize forces within himself. To try to impose earthly rules on the contest is preposterous for numerous reasons not the least of which that plenipotent angels do not rome the world and sorry to be the one to say it, or the golden firmament.
George Biemer
Tampa, Florida
February 16, 2010
Jacob's struggle
I see this struggle as one of a man (or a nation) stepping into his divine calling, which had to be entered into by passing through his enemy's (yes, his own brother was his imagined enemy because of how Jacob tricked Esau and Isaac) land. I don't think that anyone who steps into his/her divine calling does so without at least a few moments of internal (and maybe external) struggle. Sometimes it takes years of struggle to get yourself to go where you know you have been called by G-d to be. I also don't think that we come out of the struggle without some signs or scars to remind us of what we came through (like Jacob's hip injury). As usual, G-d has prepared what we are stepping into, so the victory has already been won for us, but we struggle to step into it because of our own human sinful untrusting nature.
Mary Borge
Western springs, IL
December 27, 2009
To Anonymous Brooklyn
Great questions, but did you read the article? It basically answers those questions...
Jack
NY, NY
December 24, 2009
victory over the divine
There's a lot about this story I find unclear. What does it mean to prevail over the divine, for example? How can that be? Isn't Israel supposed to submit or be obedient to the Divine?

How could a brawl go on all night in the first place? Has anyone ever heard of this? One guy wins sooner than that. But, finally, the angel sees he cannot win, so he uses his magic powers and dislocates Yakaav's hip? If he could do that, then why couldn't he win earlier? How could the angel, with powers like that, not win? And if the idea was not to use powers, then why did he use them in the end? Reminds me of "Bewitched" TV show, where you always had to wonder, if she could do X then why not Y (the solution to the whole problem)? It never made much sense, and it appears right now that this wrestling scenario doesn't either.
If Yakaav had lost to the angel of Essau, which represented the victory of Israel, would that mean that Israel would have perished? Would God have let it?
Anonymous
Brooklyn
July 1, 2009
Wrestling w angels
Jacob received from Laban what he did to Esau, out of it, he learned obedience, faith, love and hope through G_d. Jacob was obedient in returning to Esau. So what kind of angel tried to stop him? Jacob's faith persisted that overcame rebellion and evil, not his physical strength. A man is not stronger than an angel. Jacob wrestled for survival of his people. Even Esau who wanted to kill him had a change of heart. Inner change over all physical barriers. The spirit of G_d triumphs.
Anonymous
Clarksville, AR/USA
December 9, 2008
Wrestling with Angels
I thought your article was excellent! Although, there are still unanswered questions. I found your writing an encouragement in capturing the essence of Israel.
Victoria
Rockledge, FL
April 19, 2008
jacob fights the angle of esau
even though it is tempting to agree that its an angle of Esau that Jacob fought with i tend to say that an angle is spirit and there is no way we can fight against the spirit and win. no wonder the bible didn't say he fought with an angle rather it says that there he wrestled with him a MAN until day break. i don't know but it could it could have being a man, a messenger sent by God or anyone but it must not be deemed to be an angle.moreover the man didn't say if he is an angle or not.the fact that Jacob said that he has seen the face of God does not mean that he saw the face God for no one can see the face of God and live. i really would like u to shed more light on this with back ups from the bible.
samuel
lagos, nigeria
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