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Wrestling with Man, Not Angel

  • Wrestling with Man, Not Angel

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 

"Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn" (Genesis 32:25).

Who was the man who wrestled with Jacob? Most commentators refer to the man as an angel. More specifically, as Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, "It was the prince of Esau" (B'reishit Rabbah 77:3), implying that the "man" was the guardian angel of Jacob's brother Esau. The mysterious man's refusal to share his own name and his urgency to be set free before daybreak seem to indicate that he was more angel than human.

However, there is also ample evidence suggesting the man was Esau himself.

The chapter begins with Jacob sending messengers to his brother. When the messengers return with the news that Esau is on his way to meet Jacob, along with an army of four hundred men, Jacob is terrified and devises a plan. He selects hundreds of animals?ewes, goats, and others?as gifts for his brother. What most people understand in this passage is that Jacob is trying to win his brother's favor by placating him with gifts. But there is more to it than that.

In Genesis 32:18?21, Jacob instructs his servants saying, "If my brother Esau meets you and asks you, 'To whom do you belong, where are you going, and whose are these ahead of you?' say, 'These are your servant's, Jacob's; it is an offering sent to my lord Esau; and in fact he is following close behind us.'" He instructed the second, too, and third as well, and all [the others] who were to follow the droves, saying, "Thus and so shall you say to Esau when you reach him. And you shall add, 'And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.'"

It is Genesis 32:20 that clues us in to Jacob's true purpose. Thus and so shall you say to Esau- in other words, the stuff about the gifts, that is just "thus and so." When Esau asks you about them, just say, you know, yadda yadda yadda, and you shall add- now, this is the part you cannot get wrong, this is not mere thus and so-And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us. What does Jacob mean to convey to Esau by having his servants emphasize, one after the other, that Jacob is right behind?

Is it that Jacob is by himself, alone, waiting?

I read it as an invitation. Jacob is essentially telling his brother, "This is an old feud between siblings that began when we were still quite young. Let's resolve this, just the two of us, and leave the armies out of it. No one has to know. You are a hunter and a warrior, and I am ready to face you without trickery, without deceit. I am no longer the mild man who stays in camp. I am by the river, unarmed, under cover of night, and I am ready to do this. Man to man. Meet me."

As for the "man" renaming Jacob "Israel," as it is written in Genesis 32:29, ". . . for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed," I do not see this as evidence of the man's divine origins. Rather, it is a reference to the time Esau learned his brother had stolen his father's blessing. In Genesis 27:36, Esau declared, "Is he not named Jacob? Twice now he has cheated me?he took my birthright and now, look, he has taken my blessing!"

The name Jacob means "supplanter" or "trickster," and clearly this is how Esau sees him. Esau has two names, Esau and Edom, meaning "hairy" and "red," respectively. Both names describe his appearance. Until the night of wrestling, Jacob only has one name, an action name, which describes an aspect of his character that Esau far from admires. After Esau realizes that Jacob has indeed grown, Esau finally gives his brother his second name, a new action name, one that is far more heroic. It is as if Esau is saying, "After this night I will no longer think of you as the one named Jacob, who supplanted me two times in my youth, for as an adult you have shown me that you have grown courageous and strong. You are no longer my cowardly little brother hiding behind his pot of lentil stew, sneaking around wearing skins to pretend you are me, fooling our dear father. From now on, I will call you Israel."

Jacob named the place of his encounter Peni'el, explaining, "For I have seen God face- to-face " (Genesis 32:31). This is further proof to the commentators that the man must have been an angel. However, when Jacob encounters Esau the next day, in the open, he explains, "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10). There is no animosity expressed in the text between them. Their demons have been put to rest.

Why are the commentators reluctant to see the man as Esau himself? Strange as it sounds, sometimes it is easier to wrestle with God than it is to wrestle with our fellow man. It is easier to wrestle with theological concepts than it is to confront our neighbor.

I believe that to consider the man an angel is to stifle an essential message of the Torah. The message is that it is possible to reconcile, that it doesn't take a miracle to heal the rift between siblings. It does take courage, often heartache, and as in Jacob's case, a twisted hip joint! But it is possible. Brothers who at one time vow to kill one another can reunite with kisses and weeping. In the middle of the night, by the Jabbok river, two brothers come together. They wrestle. They fight. And at daybreak, light breaks, and for the first time, they see the divine image in each other. Esau sees Jacob as one who wrestles with beings divine and human, and Jacob sees in Esau's face the face of God.

As I wonder why the commentators are reluctant to see the man as flesh and blood, I also find myself wondering why we are reluctant to see the divine in each other. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said, whether a person really loves God can only be determined by the love that person shares with others.

Rabbi Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California. A book of her poetry, House Plant Meadow , will be published this year by David R. Godine, and she is the author of a chapter in The Women's Haftarah Commentary (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004).

Wrestling Within
Davar Acher By: 
Jan Katzew

Rabbi Zoe Klein (hereafter RaZaK) offers a nuanced, elegant commentary on the verse "Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn" (Genesis 32:25). Yet, I wish to suggest a davar acher , "another point of view" and alternative reading, which can serve as a counterpoint or a counterpart to RaZaK.

Jacob is left alone. There is no other being, divine or human, not wholly other and no holy brother. Jacob, perhaps for the first time in his life, is actually alone facing an opponent he cannot deceive ? himself. He looks at himself and confronts an ish, a "humane being," with whom he is unfamiliar and from whom he is alienated. Jacob is blessed with an opportunity to change his identity by coming to terms with a part of himself that he has suppressed. The Mishnah records a memorable aphorism attributed to Hillel: "In a place where there are no worthy persons, you be an ish [a worthy person]" (Pirkei Avot 2:5). The ish awakens inside Jacob when he is alone. Jewish ethics are three-dimensional. There is the relationship bein adam lamakom, "between ourselves and God," the relationship bein adam l'chevro, "between a person and another person," and bein adam l'atzmo, "between a person and him- or herself." Jacob's wrestling may be intrapersonal, and from it he emerges a changed human being.

After the incident at the Jabbok river, he is both Jacob and Israel. The two names and the identities they represent continue to struggle long after the biblical character dies. As the children of Jacob and the children of Israel, we bear witness to the perpetual, if not eternal wrestling match that involves selfishness and selflessness, deception and reflection, being a heel and being a hero. Maimonides, in the Guide of the Perplexed ( 2:42), provides support for this interpretation: "I say . . . of the story about Jacob in regard to its saying, 'And there was a man that wrestled with him' . . . all the wrestling and the conversation in question happened in the vision of prophecy."

RaZaK teaches that "it is possible to reconcile, that it doesn't take a miracle to heal the rift between siblings." I agree and propose that reconciliation can also take place within a person, the one who is and the one who is not yet, between the human being and the humane being that reside within the same person. Past memories and future hopes reside within each of us. Let them struggle and may hope prevail.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D., is the former director of the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Reference Materials: 

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208