Jacob’s midnight assailant was surprised at his adversary’s great strength. He wondered if Jacob might be an angel like himself. Angels have no leg joints, the midrash teaches, so he touched Jacob at the hip to determine whether his opponent’s power was earthly or heavenly. The angel’s mere touch dislocated Jacob’s hip, but the attacker gained no advantage. Indeed, the angel’s surprise that Jacob was only human might have helped the patriarch to prolong the struggle until first light when he could wrestle a blessing. The angel departed as daylight grew and the wounded Jacob set out to meet his brother Esau.
It intrigues me to imagine that Jacob’s earthly joint brought the heavenly blessing of a new name, Yisrael: You have struggled [sarita] with God [el] and you have prevailed (Genesis [32:29]). My intrigue is of a personal nature; his story is mine. My Hebrew name is Yisrael. My grandfather was Jacob, and I also have a joint that has been touched by wear and tear. I am always struggling to make my earthly knee—berech—into a source of heavenly blessing—beracha. I, for one, am heartened by a hero who limps.
Many ancient sages applied their interpretive arts to quickly heal Jacob of his limp. More than a few taught: Don’t read, the sun rose upon him. Rather, read the verse literally: The sun rose for him [va-yiz’rach lo]; it rose with the added purpose of healing him. A prophetic verse encourages the claim that the sun of righteousness shall rise upon you [or, for you,] who revere my name, with healing in its wings (Malachi [3:20]).
In pursuit of the healing for which they were so eager, these teachers reread, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping, as, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel while he was still limping on account of his hip. But after he passed Penuel, Jacob was limping no longer. The Torah narrative soon confirmed the healing, the sages taught, noting that after that day’s reunion with Esau, Jacob arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem (Genesis [33:18]). Don’t read it that he arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem. Rather, understand the verse to mean that Jacob had become whole, shalem, in body by the time he reached Shechem. His limp was gone and never mentioned again.
I prefer a hero who limps, and I seek out the company of those teachers who allow me my hero. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi) was of two minds as to whether Jacob continued to limp. On the one hand, Rashi taught that the sun rose upon him is a common figure of speech: “By the time we reached such-and-such a place, the sun rose upon us.” In other words, Jacob had broken camp early and was already limping along when the sun rose. On the other hand, Rashi could not resist citing the midrash that the sun rose with a special benefit for Jacob, to heal him of his limp.
Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), earned my gratitude by unequivocally confirming Jacob’s limp as an ongoing condition. According to him, the plain meaning of verse was that the sun rose upon him [making it clear for all to see that] he was limping! The sun did not serve to heal, but to reveal to all that Jacob bore his blessing in the imperfect carrier that was his body.
When Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century) returned from a mission to Rome, Rabbi Hanina met him as he limped off the ship: “You resemble [Jacob,] your grandfather,” he said. Did Rabbi Hanina note his friend’s limp with surprise? Was Rabbi Joshua’s halting step perhaps the result of a recent accident, or of cramped quarters aboard ship? Or perhaps Rabbi Joshua had always limped—although that characteristic is ascribed to him only this once.
In any event, Rabbi Hanina saw in Rabbi Joshua’s limp the renewed story of a hero who emerged limping from an epic struggle. Jacob’s struggle had been with the guardian angel of Esau; Rabbi Joshua’s contest had been with Rome—founded by Esau’s descendants. Merely by “touching” Rabbi Joshua’s hip, Rabbi Hanina renewed the ancient blessing that had emerged from that weak place.
Rivka Miriam is a modern Hebrew poet who continues the tradition of Rabbi Hanina by preserving Jacob’s limp as an asset, not as an infirmity:
And in the inner room we keep Moses’ heaviness of mouth
Isaac’s weak eyes, and Jacob’s dragging leg.
And when war stirs us, it is to the inner room we go
To examine them closely.
For each one who goes out to battle wraps himself in just these.
Jacob’s limp is among our treasured images of the courage and persistence that thrive in the company of our frailties. It is nothing less than a struggle-with-an-angel to wrestle forth the blessing that emerges from the weak place. If we remember that we grow—skin and bone—most vigorously around the wounded spot, then the limp itself can be its own blessed reminder and encouragement, sunrise after sunrise.