On Jacob's journey back to Canaan he passes through the territory controlled by Esau and seeks a reconciliation. The night before the meeting 'someone' comes to Jacob and wrestles with him, wrenching Jacob's thigh in the struggle. Dina is raped by Shechem, a Canaanite, and Simeon and Levi rise up in retaliation. Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and Isaac dies at the age of 180.
Jonathan Wittenberg is the rabbi of the New North London Masorti Synagogue - and will be presenting at Limmud Conference this year.
Who is the unnamed stranger who fights with him all night?
Jacob is on his way home. He has parted angrily from Laban, leaving behind the disputes of his midlife, only to re-enter the territory of the quarrels of his youth. When his messengers return, warning him that Esau is on his way to meet him accompanied by four hundred men, Jacob divides his camp, prays and sends propitiatory gifts. That night he guides his family across the Yabok river, then remains alone. Rashi (11th century commentator), referring to the Talmud, explains that he'd left behind some pots and pans and had gone back to fetch them. That's when the strange encounter occurred: 'A man struggled with him until the rising of the dawn' (Genesis 32:25). Who was his sudden assailant?
The Midrash (traditional rabbinic narrative) has a logical answer: 'Rabbi Hama son of Hanina said: It was the guardian angel of Esau' (Bereshit Rabbah: 77:3). Rashi quotes this explanation without confirming it as his own. It does, after all, make good sense of the narrative. Jacob is heading swiftly back to the unresolved conflict with his brother. 'Let the days of mourning for my father come and I'll kill my brother Jacob', were Esau's last words on the subject. Why should his attitude have changed over the years? The fact that the rabbis appoint him a powerful guardian angel indicates that they, too, perceive that Esau has his rights. Jacob may have fled his country, but he can't escape the consequences of his conduct and now, on his return, the hour of repayment is at hand. Furthermore, although the Torah initially describes Jacob's attacker as 'a man', the identity of his partner in strife becomes increasingly mysterious, changing Jacob's name, refusing to reveal his own, offering him a blessing and then simply disappearing. These kinds of feat fit well with the profile of an angel.
But I want to return to Jacob, left alone among the almost abandoned pots and pans. Many strains of thought assail the person who stands on the border, staring at the remnants of the past, gazing uncomfortably into the darkness of the future. What figures must emerge from his troubled thoughts to confront him?
Maybe the man with whom Jacob wrestles all night is his younger self. Who was he when he passed this place in such a hurry twenty years ago? From what had he run away then, which, dormant in his consciousness, returns to burn inside him now? There were, of course, stinging moments, such as when Laban had retorted, in justification of his own deceit in passing off Leah as Rachel, 'It's not done in our place, giving the younger before the older'. But now the details of his past conduct, how he planned it, what he said, return with a louring familiarity, just as the images of home, the pastures, the trees, the clumps of shrub, flood back into the mind of the absentee a moment before he turns the old corner and sees his childhood tents.
Or Jacob struggles with the man he's since become. Those pots and pans bear all the insignia of the last twenty years. He'd arrived in Paddan-Aram a pauper, proposed to Rachel with nothing to his name, then came the years of intense love, afterwards the disappointment, the quarrels between the sisters, the seasons of icy frost and burning sun, the disputes with Laban, the final flight that had brought him to this lonely place: Who was he now, in middle age, who had passed this way with a young man's stride and his dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth? Was this the fulfilment of all his hopes?
All night Jacob wrestles with the truth of whom he has been and the reality of who he now is.
But what earns him the name of Israel, the title of one who struggles with God, is that he refuses to let that truth go and insists on turning it into blessings.
Jacob gets an additional name "Israel" (the God wrestler) after a strange struggle with another whose identity remains wrapped in mystery. This struggle leaves Jacob with an injured thigh. Why is the injury mentioned? Directly the text tells us that it is to teach Israel not to eat the meat round the thigh. But perhaps there is another reason for Israel, the ultimate God wrestler:
"In love's service only the wounded soldiers can serve."
Thornton Wilder, Angel That Troubled The Waters