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Jacob Wrestles With the Angel

Jacob Wrestles With the Angel

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Jacob has stayed for many years at his uncle Laban’s house, where he married his four wives, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. But now it’s time to return home to the Land of Israel.

Years have passed since he received the blessings that were expected to have gone to his elder brother, Esau. But Jacob is still worried: Does Esau still hate me? Will he take revenge on me for having “stolen” the blessings?

Jacob sends messengers to Esau, who inform him that Esau indeed intends him harm. Jacob therefore prepares himself via a three-pronged strategy: prayer to G‑d, organizing for war, and sending a gift to appease his brother.

Before he meets Esau, though, a mysterious incident occurs: Jacob is confronted by an enigmatic “man” who wrestles with him and attempts to prevent him from going forward.

Who was this man? And who won the battle?

Let’s look at some midrashim that shed light on the story.

The Biblical Account

[Jacob] arose that night, and took his two wives, his two maidservants1 and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and brought them across the stream, and carried over whatever [possessions] he had.

Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. [The man] saw that he could not overpower Jacob, so he touched his hip joint; Jacob’s hip joint was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

[The man] said, “Let me go, because dawn has broken!” [Jacob] said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

“What is your name?”

“Jacob.”

[The man] said, “No longer will your name be said to be Jacob, but Israel, for you have exercised mastery [sar] with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed.”

Jacob requested and said, “Please tell [me] your name!” [The man] said, “Why should you ask for my name?” and he blessed him there.

The Small Jugs

Why was Jacob alone?

The Talmud2 cites a teaching of Rabbi Elazar: Jacob had brought all of his possessions over the river, but then he noticed that some small jugs (of no great value) were missing. Still, he didn’t want to leave even those behind, so he went back for them. There he was confronted by the man.

Why didn’t Jacob just ignore these seemingly unimportant items?

Rabbi Elazar offers this explanation: “The righteous consider their own possessions to be more valuable than their own selves. Why? Because they do not stretch forth their hands to rob.” In other words, they earn every penny honestly, and so it is important to them.

In a more mystical vein, the chassidic masters explain that every individual object in our world contains a divine spark that awaits its elevation. A tzaddik (righteous person) recognizes this spark in even the lowliest object, and so is prepared to risk his life to guard that spark and bring it to its ultimate fulfillment.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal, suggests that these jugs contained the oil that Jacob had designated for anointing the monument he had set up many years earlier during his flight to Haran.3 This was holy oil, then, so Jacob did not want to leave it behind.4

Interestingly, these jugs may be linked to the miracle of Chanukah. According to Tzeidah la-Derech, “G‑d said to Jacob: You risked your life for a small jug of oil for My sake. In return, I will repay your descendants, the Hasmoneans, when a miracle will happen for them with a small jug of oil.”

The Confrontation

A man wrestled with him: our sages explained that this was the ministering angel of Esau.”5 A commonplace of Talmudic and midrashic literature is that every nation has its own angelic “minister” who represents its interests before G‑d. It is Esau’s angel, then, who attempts to frustrate Jacob’s mission.

Thus begins the clash of the titans.

“A man wrestled with him until dawn broke.” The contest lasts for hours on end. They grapple with each other,6 casting up dust7 all the way up to the divine throne.8 The angel realizes that he cannot overpower Jacob, so he “touches [Jacob’s] thigh” and dislocates it.

As dawn breaks, Esau’s angel must join his colleagues to sing to their Creator. The angel tries to disentangle himself from Jacob but cannot do so. He is forced to beg Jacob to let him go,9 to which Jacob agrees, but only on one condition: The angel must bless him and admit that the blessings Jacob received from Isaac indeed are rightfully his and not Esau’s.

The angel agrees, blesses Jacob, and even bestows upon him a new name, Israel. Among its meanings is that Jacob has received the blessings in a noble manner, rather than by fraud.10

In commemoration of this episode, the Jewish people are forbidden to eat the gid ha-nasheh11 of an animal, which corresponds anatomically to Jacob’s injured nerve.12

The Epic Struggle

The commentaries13 point out that the fight described in this Parshah is the opening act of a battle that continues to this day between the Jewish people (represented by Jacob) and the enemy nations that seek its destruction (G‑d forbid). Indeed, throughout history many regimes have tried but failed to eradicate the Jewish people physically or spiritually; they may indeed be successful in “dislocating the hip joint,” damaging parts of Jewry, but the “body” as a whole remains intact.

This struggle will finally come to an end with the “break of dawn,” the era of the final Redemption, when Jacob’s victory will be complete and definitive. “Jacob,” as the Torah goes on to describe, “arrived whole in Shechem,” and so will it be with his descendants: despite all of the humiliation, pain and torture, the Jewish people lives on eternally and will arrive “whole” at its, and the world’s, ultimate destination.

On a Personal Level

The Zohar14 describes Jacob’s battle with the angel as symbolic of man’s struggle with his darker side.

As morning was approaching, the angel knew that he had to act fast, for soon the night—the time when he has power—would be gone, and he would be powerless. He therefore struck Jacob’s thigh, the place where the evil inclination rests. And there he was able to wound him.

The Zohar teaches us that in every struggle, we are powerful and can overcome our evil urges if we so desire. There is only one place where the lust is so strong that even great men are powerless—the gid ha-nasheh. Its very name means “to forget,”15 because once it has been aroused, all rational thinking and religious scruples are left far behind.

The only way to win that war is to stay far away in the first place, for once one is tempted, there is no knowing where things can lead. For this reason, the gid is not eaten at all, but utterly avoided.16

Footnotes
1.
At this point Bilhah and Zilpah were actually his full-fledged wives, but they are often referred to by their original roles as handmaidens to Rachel and Leah, respectively.
2.
Chullin 91a.
3.
Genesis 28:18 and 35:14.
4.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal), Yeriot Shlomo.
5.
Rashi, citing Bereishit Rabbah 77:3.
6.
The Hebrew word va-ye’avek is, according to Rashi (Genesis 32:25), related to an Aramaic word meaning “tied” or “entangled.”
7.
Menachem ben Saruk, cited in Rashi loc. cit., derives va-ye’avek from the Hebrew avak, “dust.”
8.
Talmud, Chullin 91a.
9.
The Talmud (ibid.) has Jacob ask, “Are you a thief or a gambler, that you are afraid of the morning?” to which his opponent replies as in the text, that it is his time to sing before G‑d.
10.
Rashi. Yisrael is thus seen as related to sar, “nobleman” or “master.”
11.
Generally this is identified as the sciatic nerve, although the prohibition extends to certain other nerves of the leg as well.
12.
The detailed laws concerning the gid ha-nasheh are discussed in the Talmud (Chullin ch. 7) and the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh De’ah 65:5–14). Because of the intricacy involved in removing all traces of the forbidden nerves, the task is done by professional porgers, known in Hebrew as menakrim.
13.
Lekach Tov; similarly also in Ramban.
14.
Zohar 1:170b.
15.
See Genesis 41:51, where Joseph names his son Menashe, “because the L‑rd made me forget.”
16.
The 365 sinews of a person correspond to the 365 days of the solar year, as well as the 365 negative commandments. The commandment not to eat the gid ha-nasheh, as well as the nerve itself, correspond the Ninth of Av, the day on which the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Even though Jacob did overcome the angel, the angel wounded him in the gid ha-nasheh. Perhaps this is the reason why the Romans (descendants of Esau, who was represented by the angel) were able to destroy the Temple on the Ninth of Av so many years later.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the editor of Beit Chabad, the Hebrew edition of Chabad.org.
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Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org March 25, 2014

Re: Andrew With regards to these Midrashic tales and teachings, I would suggest reading our series on the Midrash Is Midrash for Real? Reply

Andrew Brisbane AU March 24, 2014

I enjoy and love learning about Hebrew thesis, however, to hold on to texts that are predominately written by 'man' with no actual scriptural backing leave me perplexed as to why these documents are so important to teachers of Hebraic scriptures. The word of G-d speaks clearly on all matters, the interpretations are quite clear when taken in context of the passages before and after. I understand the honour bestowed upon those who have gone before us, I do not believe it dis-honours them to question the commentaries. These men wrote down their thoughts, use them as a guide, come to your own conclusions, this is why God gave us a brain, to build on that which was laid down, a firm foundation. I totally believe in Messiah and the Truth of God's word. I seek His instruction in all things pertaining to scripture, amazingly, He answers me, He will answer and show you too. May you forever be blessed with wisdom and knowledge. shalom Reply

Andrew November 16, 2013

I love it that jacob doesnt let the angel go until he recives his blessing. In my interpretation i feel we must not let our enemies go until they have no choice but to bless us. And we may be entitled to this blessing through all our lives, but it is only when we embrace our malevolent spiritual side so hard we change its composition completely. Its truly a noble way to be blessed. Reply

Reuven Slurzberg Philadelphia, PA November 15, 2013

Please explain footnote 16 I am perplexed how the commandment not to eat the gid ha-nasheh corresponds to the ninth of Av. Could you expand on this point. Reply

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