Wrestling With A “Man” – Questions By: Joel Cohen
Fearful, having learned from angels, that his brother was coming after him to kill him and his family for his having stolen his father’s Blessing of the First Born, Jacob took his family, crossed the ford of Jabbok, and sent across all of his possessions. Left alone that night, a “man” wrestled with Jacob throughout the night. When the man realized he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of Jacob’s hip and dislocated it. Still, Jacob seemed in control, and so the man begged Jacob to let him go, “for dawn has broken.”
Unwilling to do so without gaining something, Jacob said “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And so the man did, saying “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.” And so, Jacob was blessed with the great blessing that he sought.
• Assuming the “man” Jacob fought was an angel of God, as many authorities argue, how worthwhile can a blessing be to a human being who has gained it, essentially, at the edge of a knife? What are such blessings worth?
• And, didn’t the acquisition of blessings become far too important for Jacob? For here, again, even after wrestling with an angel who needed to escape by daybreak, or even after wrestling with a man, he was willing to gain a blessing this time, not through good behavior, but through mere physical prowess.
• What lesson can there be is such an incident?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
The battle between Jacob and the angel, who is interpreted by the rabbis as referring to the “angel of Esav” has been a matter of debate and controversy among Jewish commentaries for centuries. This story is especially significant as it is seen as the prototype of the battle between the Jews and the forces of evil that seek to destroy us. I would like to focus on three specific issues within this story:
1. Jacob seeks a blessing from this angel. Whether Jacob realized the angelic nature of this being is a matter of conjecture. Yet, Jacob, having grown up in the house of Isaac, clearly knew that this was no ordinary struggle. At the conclusion of the struggle, Jacob demands a blessing from this angel. I believe that Jacob did learn a lesson from his earlier experience with Esav and that lesson was the fact that blessings are important and they are worth fighting for. The promise to Abraham was transmitted through a blessing from God as was the guarantee that Isaac would continue the chain of Abraham. Jacob had received several blessings both from God and from his father. However, this blessing from the “angel of Esav” represents recognition on the part of the “opposition” that Jacob will struggle with opponents and he may be injured in the encounter but he will always survive. In many ways, it was the most valuable of all of Jacob’s blessings.
2. The “angel of Esav” renames Jacob, Israel. The name Israel has two possible derivations. The Rashbam understands the root of the word to mean “to fight or to struggle”. Jacob gains his name because he has fought with God and with man. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the champion of Orthodoxy in nineteenth century Germany, explains the root of the name from the word “sar” meaning to rule. Jacob was given his name because he had been victorious in his battle. Jacob’s name is changed as a result of the struggle with the “angle of Esav”. The commentaries dispute what aspect of the struggle should be emphasized; the battle or the victory. Was Jacob’s personality identified by his ability and willingness to fight for what he believed or was it the fact that he was able to survive against all odds. And, it is no accident that the name of the Jewish people is Israel reflecting this same question.
3. In this episode in which names are so critical, it is noteworthy that when Jacob asks the angel for his name, the angel replies, “Why should you ask for my name and he blessed him.” The passuk seems to be describing a relationship between lack of name and the ability to bless. Rabbi Hirsch explains that names identify people but they also limit people. We are only one person living at one time in one place. The angel refuses to divulge his name in order to make the blessing to Jacob a universal one, one that would apply to Jacob and to his descendants for all times.
Joels questions this week are fascinating and while I will be focusing on the final question I would like to make a remark about blessings. It says ” al tihiyeh birchas hedyot kal beeinecho.” (The blessing of a simple person should not be mundane in your eyes) how much more so the blessing of a worthy adversary, an angel.
One of the strangest laws we have seems to be the prohibition against eating the area around the sciatic nerve in an animal, because 4,000 years ago one of our ancestors had a hip dislocated, we need to forgo a good rump steak.
The Rashbam, comments that. The story of Jacob and the angel occurred just prior to Jacob’s impending encounter with his estranged twin brother. Esau was coming with four hundred armed men, and Jacob was actually planning to escape from Esau. That was when the angel attacked him. According to Rashbam, the reason for the angel wrestling with Jacob was so that he would be forced to stand his ground and not escape via a back route. Jacob was compelled to confront the enemy and overcome him. Only then would he witness the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to protect him from harm.
It seems that Jacob developing a pattern of escaping. He ran from Beer-Sheva when Esau threatened to kill him. He ran from Laban in Charan. And now he was preparing to run from Esau yet again.
Apparently, G-d wanted Jacob to learn that a philosophy of escaping is not the Jewish way. So the angel dislocated his hip, preventing him from running. Now Jacob had no choice but to fight. In the end, he defeated the angel and was blessed with the name “Israel,” for he fought with man and the divine and overcame.
This is a lesson to us all. When we stop running away from our problems and face our fears we become transported from the level of Jacob who sought to escape, to avoid confrontation to the level of Israel the “sar” or ruler as Rabbi Mintz writes. If we can overcome our urge to run when we are faced with a flight vs fight situation and engage our fears and master them, as Jacob was forced to do we are then worthy of demanding a blessing, and the tale of the dislocated hip, is more than a story but a perpetual reminder of our ability to overcome.
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