The story is famous: Jacob, after 20 years in self-inflicted exile, is on route back to the Land and about to meet his brother, Esau, the one who was the reason for his departure long ago. He is all prepared for the meet-up: there’s a gift for Esau – which deserves its own drasha; the camp is split in case of war; and prayers were said too. Jacob sets a model for how one should tackle similar situations.
This is the next stage in his growth, in his establishing his self identify. At the end of last week’s reading, we saw him setting clear boundaries between himself and Lavan, his father in law. It worked, but it took 20 years to accomplish. No wonder he’s worried now. Although everything is ready, all of a sudden he gets up in the middle of night, takes his whole family and crosses the river. He is restless, going back and forth. Did he change his mind? Is he working on the next escape?
That’s when he’s left alone and “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day”. In the well-known encounter, Jacob is asked for his name, and when he answers, the wrestling-being (angel, “ish”) says (Genesis 32:29):
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
This is not the first time Jacob fights for a blessing. He demands it of G-d. Stands up to Yitzchak (Isaac), his father. He struggles with Esau. And with Lavan. Jacob fights for the blessing; he fights for what’s important to him. The result is nothing immediate, but ultimately it’s not the result, but rather, the struggle that defines him. And what defines us as well.
The Talmud says (Eruvin 65): אדם ניכר בכוסו, כיסו וכעסו
A person is recognized by his cup, his pocket and his anger. In Hebrew, it sounds much better because of the word play (kiso, koso & ka’aso), but, regardless, the idea is that a person can be recognized / defined by what s/he drinks for (and some say, how one behaves when drunk), what one spends his money on (how much can be learned from one’s bank statement) and what angers us, what one fights for.
Jacob knew that the blessing is worth fighting for, and that’s what he begets to us. Our name has been Israel. The simplest reason is that we are the children of Jacob because only all of Jacob’s children were counted among the Jewish people, and in that sense we are the “Children” of “Israel”, Jacob. But the other reason is that we inherited the struggle, as a part of our identity. We are not called the people who obey G-d; who praise G-d; or even – who love G-d, though we might do – and teach – all these. But instead, those who struggle with G-d and people.
There are many fighting styles in many cultures. What’s common to all is – closeness. Per Jonathan Safran-Feor’s recent book, Hineni (highly recommended), we can keep close only those things we refuse to let go of; only those things we fight for.
We tend to think that’s what we’re supposed to strive for peace and quiet in our relationships, challenges, life. But too much “peacefulness”, actually, makes it difficult to hold on to whatever it is, and removes those things from our lives. Most often, fights end because of apathy. The opposite of struggle is not solving everything but being disinterested, indifferent and “done”.
There are conflicting opinions who was that angel that Jacob fought with. On some levels, it’s important: maybe it’s Esau’s angel, maybe it’s Jacob’s “other” inclination, maybe G-d. it’s possible that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the engagement.
The word used for the “wrestle” ויאבק – vaye’avek – is unusual, and per Rabbi Hirsch, is used only here. It shares its root with אבק avak, dust, thus – “to dislodge the other from his standing position on earth, to render him avak, dust”. But is also close to חיבוק, chibuk, hug, “the effort to draw someone close to oneself, to embrace”, and to the name of the river he is crossing here – יבוק Yabok.
Yaakov, the expert in juggling two opposites, here too, is working to distinguish what he should draw near and from what he should distance himself, a struggle he’s left to us as well. So much so, that this is much of what defines us.
The wrestle is not painless and results in Jacob limping. He wins but is harmed. And yet, the morning after the Torah says a strange thing:
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ…ֹ. 32 And the sun rose on (for) him…
Rashi asks: “just for him the sun rose on that day? Doesn’t it shine for all people”? some say, the sun has therapeutic abilities and shone specially to heal Jacob’s limp but what about the simple read? I think, on that morning, Jacob got up and felt like the sun – shone for him. The trees sways in the wind – just for him. The flowers bloomed – for him. And the sky was blue –just for him. The whole world was there,smiling at him. What an incredible feeling! True, he was limping but he emerged victorious! He overcame and received the most important blessing of his life. it was far from over, but perhaps, just for a few moments, he felt absolutely great.
Katonti – the dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXZTf48kRn8
And previous post about it: https://miko284.com/2016/12/13/katonti-lets-dance-again/