As our portion begins, Jacob is preparing to meet with his brother, Esau, for the first time since stealing his birthright many years earlier. Both men are now wealthy and powerful. Jacob learns that Esau is coming with 400 men, and Jacob fears that Esau will attempt revenge for the stolen birthright. To guard against this possibility, Jacob divides his camp in two and finds himself alone at night in the wilderness. That night “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn,” and when it became clear that the assailant would not win, he told Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humans, and have prevailed.”
Here’s an interesting tidbit about the name Israel – it is actually an acrostic of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs:
Yitzchak & Yaakov
Rivka & Rachel
So, returning to the story. Jacob is injured in this encounter – and leaves it with a pronounced limp.
So who was this mysterious man who wrestled with Jacob throughout the night and then renamed him in the morning?
Whoever it was, this was clearly a transformative experience for our patriarch. The experience of wrestling, whether with his own demons, a man, an angel or actually wrestling with God, left Jacob a changed man. It elevated him so profoundly that his name became Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God.” This new name defines not only Jacob, but as the members of b’nei Yisrael (the people of Israel), it defines us as well. So, what does it mean to wrestle with God? It is permission…permission to wrestle with Judaism, to question its statements of belief, to question its laws and statutes. It is permission to ask “why” and to reject answers like “because the Torah says so.” It points to thousands of years of Rabbinic arguments in the Talmud and its commentaries, in law-codes and rabbinic courts. It says that to be a Jew is to face our tradition, its culture, its texts and its practices, and to struggle with their meanings. There is no blind acceptance of belief in Judaism; we come to our faith and practice through struggle with our inherited tradition. Being “wrestlers with God” is also a significant responsibility. It means that we never can be complacent. “The way it’s always been” should not necessarily be good enough for us. If we don’t understand a tradition or text, we have a responsibility as wrestlers to learn about it. If a particular religious practice or ritual does not resonate with our spirit, we have a responsibility to explore other interpretations of that ritual, to create our own meaning for the acts that connect us to thousands of generations of Jews. If a particular mode of worship does not move our soul, we must seek out a way to pray that helps us feel the Divine that surrounds us all. Israel, the very name of our people, is an invitation to engage with Judaism in a serious way. Our points of connection can be fun, interesting, convenient and customized, but the seriousness with which we struggle to understand our faith and our tradition can come only from within.
The Torah reading of Vayishlach focuses on the second half of the life of Jacob. In the past few weeks we have read about his early life; his feud with his brother Esau and his flight to his uncle, Laban, whose daughters he marries. Now Jacob is an established chieftain, returning to his home with four wives, eleven sons and one daughter and much wealth. In this parsha he returns to Canaan and is forced to face his past and to establish himself, his family and his legacy for the future. The various episodes in the parsha provide us with two ways of understanding Jacob and his family at this stage in their history. First there are the episodes in which the characters, especially Jacob, are presented to us primarily in a very personal way as individuals. They experience events in which their own emotions, especially fear and pain, are center stage and the text focuses on the personal drama. And then there are episodes in which the story focuses on the larger political arena, the way in which this single family is evolving into a tribe, and then into a nation. It is facing new experiences that challenge it as a collective, events that deal with the political, not just the personal. The first main event of the parsha, Jacob's lonely fight with the "man" on the night before he meets Esau, across the river of Jabbok, is the epitome of a personal encounter. The traditional commentators debate the nature of this encounter; Maimonides believes it is a symbolic representation of an internal conflict in which Jacob faces his mental fear of Esau; Nachmanides argues that it is a physical encounter. But, either way, Jacob is alone. He faces his own darkness and his own fears, and must fight, and win, using his own strength. The power of this story is in the image of a single man emerging victorious out of the darkness after a difficult struggle. We can see our own individual selves in this archetypal event.
The commentators and sages take a dual approach to the wrestling match – there’s a Narrow Approach and a Broad approach:
The Narrow Approach
•The struggle foreshadows the encounter with Esau
•It strengthens Jacobs resolve- preparing him for the encounter
The Broad Approach
•Esau and Jacob represent 2 worldviews
•Esau – anthropocentric (physical, material)
•Jacob – theocentric (spiritual, ethical)
•Inevitably these 2 worldviews have to clash and so the struggle with the supernal being is a metaphor for this constant clash of world views.
Elie Wiesel writes that there are two Jacobs fighting against each other. There was the Jacob who thought he was nothing. He had doubts about himself and regretted stealing the blessing from Esau. This Jacob felt unworthy of God and of leading the Jewish nation. Then there was the Jacob who was brave and thought he deserved the blessing. This Jacob reminded himself how hard he had worked to create his community and that through him the Jewish people would survive. That night, the two Jacobs fought against each other. As the angel left Jacob would have a new name. He would no longer be called Jacob which means, "The one who holds onto his brothers heel." He would become Israel, "The one who has wrestled with himself and was ready for anything."
This personal, emotional perspective continues immediately afterwards, when Jacob meets his brother Esau. Esau hugs and kisses Jacob and they cry together. Esau thanks Jacob for his gift and says he doesn’t really need it, but Jacob insists that he keep it. Esau then invites Jacob to travel with him to Seir where he lives, but Jacob tells him that it takes a long time to travel with the women, children and all the animals and that he’ll come at a later date. Jacob does not end up going to Seir. He travels slowly and moves to different places such as Sukkot and near Shechem.
The next episode in the parsha deals with the rape of Jacob's daughter, Dina, and the resulting revenge taken on the rapist, Shechem, and his whole city.
Chapter 34 of Genesis opens with the rape. Verse one tells how Jacob's and Leah's only daughter "went out to visit the daughters of the land." The next verse immediately reports that Shechem, a Canaanite man, "saw her, and took her and lay with her by force." The next fifteen verses describe how Shechem, infatuated with Dinah, enlists his powerful father Hamor to "get me this girl" by brokering a deal with a speechless Jacob and his enraged sons. The brothers agree to allow Shechem to marry their sister only if he and his clan circumcise themselves; otherwise, they "will take our daughter and go" (34:17).
As shown above, among the various motifs in Genesis 34 is the repeated use of the Hebrew verb root LaKaCH for "get" or "take," and three of its eight appearances figure prominently in the narrative's closing verses. Three days following the mass circumcision, Dinah's brothers Shimon and Levi "took each his sword" (34:25) to slay the townsmen and then "took Dinah out of Shechem's house and went away" (34:26). After the other brothers "seized . . . all that was inside the town and outside" (34:28), the action concludes with Jacob's furious reaction to his sons' rampage, to which they reply, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" (34:31).
In fact, that rhetorical question in the passage's final verse encapsulates the concerns of the male personalities in this story. After Shechem inexplicably ravishes Dinah, he seeks to acquire her in a way that would dignify the coerced intercourse of their initial encounter. Her brothers, on the other hand, desire retribution for this "outrage . . . a thing not to be done" (34:7) that has turned their sister into a sex object. In Shechem's eyes, Dinah is an item for negotiation; for her brothers, she represents defilement and a cause for revenge.
According to this literary analysis, one can see how Genesis 34 presents its violent narrative of the loss and repossession of power, property, and honour. Amidst all the explicit atrocities, though, perhaps the subtlest tragedy is the way in which both Dinah's virginity and her voice are stolen from her. Not once does she speak in the entire chapter, nor do any of the men ever address her directly. Unfortunately, many ancient and medieval rabbis add insult to her injury, as they place the onus for the rape on Dinah and/or her mother Leah. For example, Genesis Rabbah 80:1 assigns moral responsibility to both Dinah and Leah, for "a woman is not immoral until her daughter is immoral," as Leah herself "went out to meet (Jacob) like a harlot." This type of moralistic comment may have been intended to protect women from exposing themselves to danger, but it unfairly assumes that either Dinah or Leah could have prevented what occurred.
In this story we might expect to see the personal drama take center stage; hear the pain and anger of Jacob, responding to the violence against his daughter as a father, or learn about the terror of Dina as she is victimized. But the story focuses on the political elements of the story. We know nothing about Dina's feelings, nor do we see a father dealing with tragedy. Rather, Levi and Shimon, Jacob's sons, take revenge on the whole city of Shechem and utterly destroy it. Jacob is concerned, not with the damage done to his daughter, but to the political ramifications of Levi and Shimon's actions and the damage that may be done to the reputation of the tribe of Israel as a result. The personal facets of this story are absent, perhaps jarringly so, and it is up to the midrashim, both ancient and modern, to fill in the personal gaps of the story. The movement between the personal and the collective, or political, focus is evident throughout this parsha (read it yourself and you will see several other examples) and is symbolized by the core event, the change of Jacob's name. The man (or angel) who fights with Jacob blesses him with a new name. Later, God repeats this change of name, from Jacob to Israel. Jacob, the name that defined him as an individual, is no longer accurate. Jacob is the name of a single person. Israel is the name of a collective entity, a nation. It means, "one who struggles with God." Now he is "Israel," a name by which all his descendants will be called, "the children of Israel." It is interesting to note that after Jacob's name has been changed he is still sometimes referred to as Jacob, and sometimes as Israel. The change of name does not wipe out his individual identity. On one hand, he is still an individual. The name he was born with reflects his identity and he continues to be defined by it. But, at the same time, from this parsha and onward Jacob is not just Jacob. He is also Israel, representative of a collective history and destiny, a nation. This is an important lesson for each of us. We are all individuals, with our own names and unique identities. But, each of us is also part of something greater than ourselves. We are part of a group, a nation, something that defines us as "we." The movement between the "I" and the "we" is found in the individual names our parents gave us, and the name "Israel" that we also carry with us. The relationship between these two identities is sometimes expressed peacefully and sometimes it is a struggle. It begins in this week's parsha and continues to this day, and in my opinion it makes life richer and more creative for each one of us and the whole Jewish people.
According to Nachmanides, the events described in the Torah actually occurred. In other words, Jacob actually engaged in a physical battle. The attacking angel assumed the form of a human being. According to this interpretation of the events, Jacob`s limp was the result of an injury incurred during the struggle with the angel. However, Maimonides and others disagree with Nachmanides and contend that the battle took place in a prophetic vision. No actual encounter occurs and no physical struggle took place. According to this interpretation of the account though, Jacob`s limp is more difficult to explain`. Abravanel suggests that Jacob’s limp demonstrates the impact of the prophetic vision upon the dreamer. The answer adopted by Abravanel and many others is that the limp was not the result of actual physical trauma. They explain that a prophetic vision is very real to the prophet. The experience of the vision can best be compared to a dream. Often, our dreams are vivid. Movement and sensation can accompany dreams. It is not unusual for a dream to influence us even after waking. It may affect our mood. We may even be left with sensations. What Jacob experienced in his prophecy was absolutely real to him. He felt the blow of his adversary. This pain remained with him after waking. Consequently, he limped.
Gershonides argues that the limp reveals the influence of imagination in the dream. However, Gershonides provides an alternative explanation for the limp. He suggests that the limp was not a consequence of the dream. Instead, it preceded the dream. Common dreams – that are not prophetic in nature – are often woven from the events and experiences that occurred in the dreamer’s recent past or during the day preceding the dream. Dreams are also sometimes provoked by sensations that are experienced while asleep. Many people have woken from dreams featuring ringing or buzzing sounds to discover that their alarm clock is buzzing or their phone is ringing. Geshonides suggests that the prophetic dream takes advantage of that same occurence. Its message is woven from recent experiences, events, and sensations. It uses these elements as the raw material from which to construct the prophetic vision. Jacob fell asleep feeling discomfort from his aching hip. His prophetic dream-vision used this sensation as raw material from which to construct its message. Jacob`s subsequent limp was not a product of the dream; it was a precursor to the vision. This interpretation of Jacob’s limp provides an important insight into Gershonides’ understanding of the mechanism through which prophetic visions are constructed. It seems that both the common dream and the prophetic dream are products on an imaginative force within the human being. However, the content of the common dream is produced by this imaginative force acting without any external guidance. In contrast, in the instance of the prophetic dream, the imaginative force is guided in its work by the prophetic influence. In other words, the imaginative force is harnessed and used to create a vision that expresses the intended prophetic message.
The 12th century French sage, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir ("Rashbam"), a grandson of Rashi and a Biblical and Talmudic commentator of note, offers the following insight. 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 flee 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. Destiny itself was compelling Jacob 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 was coming dangerously close to developing a pattern of escapism. He fled Beer-Sheba when Esau threatened to kill him. He fled from Laban in Haran in middle of the night when he worried that Laban wouldn't allow him to return to his homeland. And now he was preparing to flee from Esau. At any moment now there would be yet another nocturnal escape.
Perhaps G-d wanted Jacob to learn that a philosophy of escapism is not the Jewish way. So the angel dislocated his hip, preventing him from running away. Now Jacob had no choice but to fight. In the end, he defeated the angel and was blessed with the name "Israel," signifying a superior stature, victory and nobility. “No longer shall it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with the divine and with man and you have overcome.”
Every son and daughter of Jacob must learn this lesson. Every one of us must become a child of Israel. The quality of fearlessness and courage, of strength and sacrifice, these are the hallmarks of Israel. When we stop running away from our problems and face up to them with guts and fortitude, we enter that higher state of consciousness. We move up from Jacob The Jew, who is still struggling, to Israel mode, where we finally emerge triumphant. When we are prepared to take up the challenge and go for the fight rather than flight; we move from being wrestlers to becoming winners, from humble Jacob to dominant Israel.
Escapism is not the Jewish way. Of course it's never easy. Escape is usually the path of least resistance. Nor am I suggesting that we go looking for a fight. But the fact is that there will be times when we know that we really need to have that confrontation. We need to square up to a particular problem or individual in order to deal with our situation effectively. We shouldn't be confrontational people. But often we know in our heart of hearts that if we don't engage a problem honestly it will continue to plague us.
If we can move from meekness to courage, then the story of Jacob's wrestling match will live on and continue to inspire us to become the stronger personalities we really can be. The dislocated hip joint thus becomes worthy of eternal remembrance because it makes us better people. In an eternal remembrance of this lesson, the laws of kashrut determined that the meat beyond the animal’s hip is unkosher. When we don’t eat the hip sections of the animal, we pay tribute to Jacob’s struggle and ultimately our own.