Wrestling with an Angel
Shabbat Vayishlach; Genesis 32:4-36:43 Commentary by Rabbi Edmond H Weiss, Ph.D.
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
If one is mindful of the Hebrew calendar—its festivals, fasts, and sedra—then inevitably one will find certain key memories attached to those events in the calendar. My wife’s maternal grandmother, for example, always told us she was born on the second candle of Chanukah.
Parashah Vayishlach is always meaningful to me because it was the Torah portion for both my son’s and daughter’s b’nai mitzvoth. It was also the Torah portion on the Shabbat after I buried my son in 2010.
My daughter Meredith approached her bat mitzvah the way most kids do: as an opportunity to have a big party and, in her case, a chance to do what she loved best, perform on a stage (bimah). My son Ryan took the matter more seriously, especially when it came time to write his own d’var Torah. By the age of twelve, my son had already become talented at expressing himself in music and lyrics and drawing. But writing essays was a task he struggled over. So, when all the other preparations were done, we sat at the kitchen table together (I can still see it in my mind) and pondered Jacob’s encounter with an “angel.”
In his d’var he reviewed how Jacob, having completed the several years of work that Laban had tricked him into, set off to be reunited with Esau. Jacob knew that Esauhated him for having swindled their feeble father Isaac out of Esau’s inheritance. (Even though Esau was only a minute or so older than his twin Jacob, said to have left his mother’s body grabbing Esau’s heel and trying to get past him, the laws of inheritance were unaffected.) That night:
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.
For me, this parashah contains perhaps the most engaging and evocative image in Torah: Jacob’s wrestling match with a mysterious being described only in the text as a “man (ish).” Ryan and I talked about who the man might be and what our sages had thought.
Not surprisingly, the identity of this “man” has inspired thousands of pages. Modern readers like to approach the story psychologically as a story of Jacob (perhaps in a dream) wrestling with his guilt, fear, and various inner demons¾not the least of which being his insecurity at accepting his new leadership role.
Other readers, ancient and modern, see the visitor as an angel of God, or as God himself; recall that Jacob claims to have seen the face of God. (God also appears to Abraham and Sarah as an “ish.”)
The traditional midrashic interpretation is that the visitor was Esau’s guardian angel, standing sentry at the Jabbok river, the boundary of Esau’s territory. In this much less exotic interpretation, this is simply another demonstration of how much more powerful and effective Jacob’s God is than the competing gods in the neighborhood. (Henotheism.)
But all attempts to supply a simple, logical literary exegesis are likely to fail. Whatever theory one offers, there are still unsolved problems:
- If he was Esau’s protector, why did Jacob see the face of God?
- If he was Esau’s representative, what gave him the franchise to re-name Jacob as Israel? (And why does Jacob keep calling himself Jacob, anyway?)
- If it was an angel, why is he called a man?
- If he is a visitor from Jacob’s God, why does he injure him?
- If it was God, why did he need to hamstring Jacob to out-wrestle him?
- If Jacob dreamed the encounter, why did he wake up limping?
- And why, given all the ways in the universe to interact, choose wrestling?
Elie Wiesel believes that the “man” was Esau himself, there either to kill him or accept him. Thus, it is interesting that they fight to a draw. And Jack Miles (God: A Biography) takes the most psychological approach of all, arguing that the “man” was Jacob himself, undergoing a metamorphosis of some kind, changing from “the heel” to “the one who struggles with God.”
Whatever happened to Jacob, it is fairly clear that his midnight visitor did NOT have wings. Like many of our notions about the Bible, the image of Jacob wrestling a winged messenger from God is derived mainly from Renaissance painting. The image below, painted by Leloir is an especially beautiful example, that brings up still another curious aspect of the story.
In Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the central character, Proctor, explains how he realized he was gay by discussing a print of Jacob and the Angel that hung in his room and that continually drew his attention. In the HBO version of the play, the picture below was used to illustrate his story. Indeed, most of the classic paintings of this scene are more than slightly homoerotic.
Whatever this legend may have meant to its authors, its popular current interpretation, even though it goes well beyond the text, is to treat this episode as a symbol of any great inner struggle that leads to a transformation¾especially when the struggler is afraid and especially when he or she emerges with a heightened sense of mission and responsibility. That’s the path of interpretation chosen by my son. It will be discussed later.
The Third Mitzvah
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.
There are only three mitzvot (according to Maimonides’ reckoning) in all of the Book of Genesis:
- To Be Fruitful and Multiply
- To Circumcise on the Eighth Day
- Not to Eat the Sinew of the Thigh-Vein
The third mitzvah is, in some curious way, a commemoration of this wrestling match between Jacob and the “man” who visited him. But since the rabbinical tradition is to identify this mysterious stranger as Esau’s guardian angel, the significance is to remind us of the evil of Esau and Esau’s descendants. (Note: There is even a passage in the Talmud that proposes that the Romans were the descendants of Esau!)
The Sefer HaChinuch explains:
[The angel] wanted to extirpate Jacob from the world . . . Unable to prevail against him, he pained him by touching his thigh. Thus, the descendants of Esau inflict pain and suffering on the descendants of Jacob.
The Third Mitzvah, then, requires the removal of the muscle/tendon/sinew that the angel touched from kosher meat. The process of removing this particular part is called porging and the detailed instructions for removing it and scraping the surrounding area can be found in Tractate Chullin. And the punishment for eating from this meat, “even if it be less than the amount of an olive,” is flogging. That’s the price for forgetting about Esau when we eat.
Rashbam explains that we do so as a remembrance to Jacob’s struggle with Esau’s angel who represented the material world (Rashi on Genesis 32:25). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the word נשה from הנשה גיד, sciatic nerve seems to relate to the concept of submission (Genesis 32:33). By refraining from these parts of the hindquarter, we symbolically renounce weakness and submission to the earthy physical pleasures of the material world represented by Esau. Although Jacob limped away from the ordeal, he recovered and became known as Israel, the sign of the sole conquering power of God.
Sidney Ochs calls our attention to a similar practice elsewhere:
An analogy to the biblical injunction against eating the rump because of the sciatic nerve within it was the practice carried out among some North American Indian tribes of regularly cutting out and throwing away the thigh muscles containing the nerve. The reason given by the Cherokee Indians was that the “tendon,” when cut, retracts, with the muscles becoming lax; and they did not wish to expose themselves to the danger of also becoming weakened if they were to eat it. The notion is clearly based on sympathetic magic. The struggle of Jacob in Genesis may very well also have had a similar origin in sympathetic magic that was later given a mythic interpretation.
Perhaps this gives support to the LDS claim that the North American Indians are the lost tribes of Israel.
Modern Judaism’s “Wrestling Match”
Modern, liberal Judaism, of course, is in a perpetual state of intellectual and emotional strife. It began its life in a radical break with tradition; its internal struggles in its early years led to another rift that, ultimately, yielded Conservative Judaism (which is also in continuous strife these days about where it sits on the Reform—Orthodox continuum). The break came when the first graduating class of the new Reform Seminary, for its celebratory dinner, decided to include shrimp on the menu! (This so-called “treyfe menu” has been included in some anthologies of Judaism’s most critical documents.)
Strife, dispute, debate, argument, intellectual wrestling . . . these are the essence of the Jewish religion, which is, above all else, a culture of laws and lawsuits. Abraham and Moses argue with God; Job takes God to court; the Talmud is approximately 75% transcribed disagreements. Jews are even commanded to study in pairs, presumably so there is always someone to fight with. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that the followers of Shammai became so frustrated with always losing debates to the followers of Hillel, that they would wait outside the study house and pounce on them (wrestle) as an alternative to spoken battles.
Liberal Judaism has its share of fights with Orthodoxy, especially in Israel (the only country in the world where my Rabbi is not a Rabbi). But it also has some serious internal struggles as well. Among the many 40- and 50-somethings in the current leadership of the liberal synagogues, there is a strong sense of a return to ritual and a more traditional service. In some discussions, the practitioners of the mostly-English liturgy of what is nowadays called “classic Reform” are made somewhat uncomfortable by Hebrew enthusiasts. And some Reform rabbis recommend not only that we lay tefillin each day, but that we reinstate a belief in the afterlife and the coming of a messiah!
It is a good thing, I believe, that the most liberal Jews are now studying Torah in a Jewish way: incorporating the best rabbinical sources into the conversation. (And, still, there are those who want to read the Torah exclusively in English, with their own responses, without much regard for the Talmud.)
At the moment, one of the most contentious aspects of non-orthodox Judaism is disagreement about Israel/Palestine–with progressives believing that Israel is an outlaw deserving of sanctions and boycott, and, at the other extreme, those who believe that the Torah is a real estate deed and “there is no such thing as a Palestinian.” A rabbi friend told me recently that Israel, once the surest source of unity in the various houses of Judaism, was now the most divisive topic.
But, putting politics and theology aside, the central wrestling match for a modern Jew, as I understand it, is defining what to do, how to act, how to treat people and conduct one’s affairs. As I approach it, Torah study means learning how to judge good from evil and to act ethically and responsibly. And, if you are of a certain temperament, to experience emanations from the Ayn Sof.
And how did my son, Ryan, interpret this battle with the angel? He viewed it as his own struggle with his Hebrew and Jewish studies, a process he found tiring, boring, and difficult. He spoke of wrestling with his studies and ended with: I have prevailed.
Like many boys, Ryan’s involvement in Judaism more or less disappeared at that point. To be sure, he was always an enthusiastic part of our seders; when given an Aliyah at a service, he knew how to daven his part. And he recited kaddish for his three Jewish grandparents. Also, interestingly, he became very angry when he learned that some of his favorite rock bands used neo-Nazi emblems and, consequently, got rid of their records and CDs.
But the most interesting fall in Ryan’s wrestling bout with the Angel of God came in 1999, when he became a father. His Protestant wife was determined that their son would have a religion and generously offered Ryan the choice: Jewish or Christian. To my surprise and frustration, Ryan said he didn’t care!
I sat across a table from him at a diner in New Jersey. “Why,” I asked, “don’t you want your son, David, to be raised as a Jew?” And his answer took me right back to the kitchen table where we wrote his d’var Torah. “Because I don’t want any son of mine to have to attend Hebrew School!” He was telling me what social scientists have discovered lately: namely, that Hebrew school is the place where many children lose their interest in being Jewish.
For us, though, at that moment, the problem was easily solved. I promised my son that, if that’s what he wanted, David would not be compelled to attend Hebrew school. A tutor and I would teach him the Hebrew of the liturgy. And I myself would officiate at his bar mitzvah.
Ryan died about two years before David’s bar mitzvah. On David’s 13th birthday in January of 2013, he and I stood side by side and led the “Sabbath of the Song” (BeShellach) before 100 of our friends and family. In addition to all my other feelings, I was most aware that I had kept my promise to my boy. That together we had pinned the angel.
Dr. Weiss is a writer, lecturer and retired professor, who received his rabbinical ordination in 2018 at the age of 75. He develops courses, workshops, and seminars for adult Jewish education. You can email him at EdmondWeiss@comcast.net.