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The Struggle of Jacob


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

While Jacob is preparing for his epic showdown with his estranged brother Esau, he has a bizarre confrontation with someone totally unexpected:

Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. He [the man] saw that he could not defeat him, and he touched the joint of his thigh. Jacob's hip became dislocated from wrestling with him. And he [the man] said, 'Let me go for dawn is breaking.' He [Jacob] said, 'I will not release you unless you bless me.' He [the man] said 'What is your name?' He said, 'Jacob.' He said, 'Your name shall no longer be called Jacob rather Israel, for you have struggled with God and with man and you have been victorious.' Jacob asked, and said, 'Please tell me your name.' He said, 'Why are you asking for my name?' And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the place Pniel [God's face], 'for I have seen God face to face and my soul was saved.' The sun rose as he left Pnuel. And he was limping because of his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the hip tendon until this very day, for Jacob's thigh joint was afflicted at the hip tendon. [Genesis 32:25-32]

The text seems deliberately enigmatic and contradictory:


  • Jacob is said to be alone, but if that is true how can a man wrestle with him?



  • He saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the joint of his thigh. Who is "he" and who is "him"? This verse can not be understood on its own; only by reading the next verse can we reconstruct the meaning and fill in the identities (as I did above). Why is there so much confusion? What is the identity of Jacob's adversary?



  • He said 'What is your name?' He said 'Jacob.' Does the adversary not even know with whom he is struggling?



  • He said, 'Your name shall no longer be called Jacob rather Israel, for you have struggled with God and with man and you have been victorious.' The adversary who seconds ago said he does not even know the identity of his foe, declares that Jacob has been victorious in his struggle with God and man!



  • Jacob asked, and said 'Please tell me your name.'" Why does Jacob wish to know the identity of this person?


Let us examine this passage carefully and see how we can decode its mysterious and enigmatic content:

Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Our problem is that if Jacob is truly alone, who can be wrestling with him? One possible answer is -- no one! Jacob is actually wrestling with himself. This would explain the ambiguity in the passage. However, by solving the textual problem (if indeed we are correct), we have raised an even greater problem: Why would a sane man wrestle with himself? A careful reading of the text may give us some insight.

The "man" is referred to in Hebrew as an ish. And we find another verse -- a great deal less enigmatic -- in which it is apparent that the ish is clearly Jacob:

The man [ish] prospered exceedingly and he possessed great herds and maids and servants and camels and donkeys. [Genesis 30:43]

The context is fascinating: Jacob has finally succeeded financially. The blessings meant for Esau which he had taken have come to fruition. Jacob has "made it". He has completed a metamorphosis from being a man of the tent -- a yeshiva student, if you will -- to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Yet Jacob struggles with his success. It was one thing to take the blessings destined for Esau; it is quite another to live with the results of those blessings. As Jacob prepares to meet his brother he looks at all the wealth which he has accumulated and he is worried. He separates all that he owns and all that he loves into different camps, and he is left alone.

Previously, the text described Jacob as alone when he was running from Esau, and he spent an awesome night under the stars and saw his life's vision -- the stairway to heaven. At that time, he didn't even have a place to rest his head and he slept on rocks. Now, Jacob returns with riches.

But now he must also ask the question: Who am I? Jacob, the man of tents, or Esau, the man of the fields? As Jacob crosses the river and sees his reflection, he questions his identity. Had he begun to look like Esau? Had the fulfillment of the stolen blessings actually turned him into Esau?

It would seem that Esau thought so. When last Esau was mentioned, he swore to kill Jacob. And when they meet, Esau is clearly prepared for war:

And Jacob lifted his eyes and he saw, behold, Esau approaching together with four hundred men. [Genesis 33:1]

When he sees the abundance of Jacob's camp, Esau does an about face. His anger seemingly dissipates. Rather than waging war, he asks Jacob to travel together with him -- quite an unexpected response for someone bent on vengeance. If anything Esau's anger should have been exacerbated by the sight of Jacob's great wealth; after all, this blessing of wealth was rightfully his own. What brought about Esau's sudden change of heart?

Esau must have seen something in Jacob which he had never seen before. Esau saw the "new" Jacob, a man of wealth, a man who had seemingly abandoned his spiritual pursuits in favor of his material possessions. In Esau's mind, Jacob had become Esau, and, as far as Esau was concerned, there was no longer a reason to hate his brother. The barriers which had divided them had disappeared; they could now join forces. Esau thought he had achieved an ideological victory, which was far sweeter than any revenge he could have exacted.

This was precisely the cause of Jacob's inner struggle. He, too, saw in himself what Esau saw.

...a man wrestled with him until daybreak. He [the man] saw that he could not defeat him ...

All night long, Jacob struggles with his success. His spiritual self and his physical self collide as he tries to determine his true identity. But Jacob is unable to resolve this conflict.

...he touched the joint of his thigh. Jacob's hip became dislocated from wrestling with him ...And he was limping because of his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the hip tendon until this very day, for Jacob's thigh joint was afflicted at the hip tendon.

In the resolution that is finally achieved, the physical realm is forced to yield. Laws, like that of the hip tendon, Gid HaNashe, will create spiritual boundaries within physical experience, making possible the elevation of the physical world to a spiritual plane.

This is Jacob's resolution. Jacob may look like Esau, and, in truth, he is no longer the same Jacob. The very name Jacob -- which connotes a relationship with Esau -- will now be superseded by the name Israel, which speaks of his relationship with the physical and spiritual realms.

Now we can understand why the Sages almost uniformly identify the man with whom Jacob struggled as the "angel of Esau." Despite the complexity of the passage, the Midrashim and commentaries treat it as if the meaning were obvious, and are relatively unified as to the identity of the assailant.

When the Sages say that Jacob's adversary was the angel of Esau, they refer to the power of Esau within himself with which Jacob was struggling, this power which Jacob fears has taken over his life.

Indeed, when Esau makes the invitation to travel together, Jacob begs off saying:

"Master, know that the children are young and the flocks and cattle weigh heavily on me, and if I should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. [Genesis 33:12-13]

Jacob's reason is that his possessions are a burden which slows him down, just as his leg injury also slows him down in another way. The physical bounty with which he has been blessed is cumbersome for Jacob -- it is a burden which holds him back from reaching his true stride, from realizing his spiritual potential.

And on that day Esau returned on his way to Se'ir, and Jacob went to Succot and built himself a house and made booths for the cattle; this is why the name of the place is called Succot. [Genesis 33:16-17]

The conclusion of the confrontation between Jacob and Esau takes them in two different directions. Esau returns home, while Jacob travels to Succot. Jacob's destination is called Succot because of the booths he made for his animals. It is interesting that in this place Jacob also built a home, presumably for his family. So why would he prefer to name the place for the booths made for the animals?

The association conjured up by these booths is, of course, the Festival of Succot. Jews are required to leave the comforts of their homes and live in a temporary booth, to remind ourselves that the physical world is a temporary one. This is also what is running through Jacob's mind.

Jacob recognizes that the physical bounty with which he has been blessed is transitory. It is just a means to an end. After meeting Esau and coming to terms with his material existence, he names his first stop Sukkot in order to stress this message.

If we find Jacob heading towards Succot, what is his point of departure? Where is he coming from? As strange as it may sound, a Jew heads to Succot immediately after Yom Kippur.

In attempting to explain the concept of the Yom Kippur scapegoat, Nachmanides pulls it all together for us. He explains that in offering this peculiar sacrifice on Yom Kippur, the Jews would give a bribe to "Sama'el" in order to appease him and to facilitate his testimony before the heavenly court on their behalf. [Commentary to Vayikra, based on Pirki D`Rebbi Eliezer, Ch. 45] Who is this "Sama'el?" None other than the angel of Esau, which whom Jacob had struggled. [Midrah Tanhuma Vayishlach, 8).

We can trace the emergence of a theme here. On Yom Kippur, every Jew must struggle with who he is or who he has become. The Torah commands us on Yom Kippur to offer a scapegoat, to "give the devil his due," as it were. This process enables man to keep his physical aspect in perspective. When Jacob met up with Esau, he, too, gave gifts; these gifts have come to erve as the prototype for the yearly sacrifice on Yom Kippur, which is offered to the power of Esau in the world.

The Zohar, apparently aware of this connection, writes that the confrontation between Jacob and Esau was resolved at the hour of Ne'ila, when the concluding prayer of Yom Kippur is said. [Zohar VaYikra, Parshat Emor, p.100b] At this point, Jacob sets off to build his Succah, his temporary abode.

If the confrontation between Jacob and Esau takes place on Yom Kippur day, then, by extension, the confrontation with his anonymous opponent takes place the previous night -- Kol Nidre night, the Eve of Yom Kippur. All that night, Jacob struggled with the Esau within him: Was he still Jacob or had he become Esau? Had his possessions, and his preoccupation with acquiring those possessions, changed him? By taking Esau's blessing, had he in fact taken on Esau's persona? By daylight, the time the High Priest would have begun the service in the Holy Temple, the struggle must be resolved.

The Zohar elaborates:

And they wrestled: The identity of the angel was the Guardian of Esau. And who is he? Sama'el. And it is appropriate that the dust of their feet went up to the Divine Throne, for that is the place of judgment. [Zohar Bereshit 170a]

The Zohar understands that judgment filled the air that night. Would the Angel of Esau be able to attest to Jacob's innocence as he would for generations of Jews in the future?

He [Jacob] said, 'I will not release you unless you bless me.' [Genesis 32:27]

Jacob wants the blessing. In the end he receives it.

This section closes with Jacob naming the place Pniel, for Jacob's profound self-analysis and inner struggle bring him "face to face" with God. We thus learn that real repentance, which results from profound introspection, leads to a meeting with God.

R. Levi said: "Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory, as it is said: 'Return, O Israel, unto the Lord thy God.'" [Yoma 86a]

That is what Jacob feels as he takes leave in the morning:

The sun rose as he left Pnuel. And he was limping because of his thigh. [Genesis 32:32]

Jacob limps away from that confrontation, physically weaker, but spiritually transformed and empowered. Now he knows how to respond to challenges which await him from both this world, and the other. His identity would no longer be defined or determined by his relationship with his brother Esau. He has now become Israel. The physical and spiritual are no longer at odds. Together, they accompany Jacob/Israel with every step he takes as he moves toward his destiny, albeit at a slower pace physically, but spiritually invigorated.

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