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Home » Vayishlach

Vayishlach: Wrestling Angels

Submitted by on December 11, 2005 – 9:38 pmNo Comment | 2,321 views

Disagreements

We all have them, even with the people we love. That no two people can agree on every issue is a fact of life. “Our mindset,” say our sages, “is as unique as our facial features.” (1)

While every married couple has disagreements, not every couple becomes disagreeable. The difference is in the reaction to the disagreement. Some couples discuss their disagreements, others debate them.

In a debate the interlocutor is viewed as an opponent and the intent is to defeat him. In a discussion the interlocutor is viewed as a partner and the intent is twofold: to listen to your partner’s position and to articulate your own. Discussions lead to compromise, understanding and solutions; debates lead to arguments, which foment discord and stress.

The rate at which relationships survive their disagreements is directly linked to the rate at which discussions become arguments. Couples who discuss their issues disagree with each other’s opinions; couples who debate their issues disagree with each other.

We are far more willing to tolerate differences with those who validate us than with those who don’t. As long as our interlocutors value us and our opinions, even as we disagree with them, we are prepared to entertain their opinions and even reconsider our own.

Here we must inject a note of caution. Before we lower our guard with interlocutors who seem to value us and our opinions we must ensure that they are indeed our friend. In a friend’s hands such trust can enhance a relationship, in the hands of a foe such trust can be cunningly exploited.

Relevance of an Extra Word

This helps to explain a curiosity in the Biblical narrative of Jacob’s struggle with the Angel. “And a man wrestled with him (Jacob) until the break of dawn but when the man saw that he could not overcome him, he struck the hollow of his thigh, and Jacob’s thigh was strained as he wrestled with him.” (2)

The Torah is usually economical with its words yet here the verse ends with a reminder that Jacob was involved in wrestling despite having earlier informed us of this fact.

The biblical word employed here is “Vayeavek.” Biblical commentary offers two interpretations. The first is rooted in the Hebrew translation of the word “Avak,” which means dust – Their fierce wrestling kicked up a cloud of dust. The second is rooted in the Aramaic translation of the word “Avak,” which means to bond, “in the manner of wrestlers who throw their arms around each other in tight embrace.” (3)

The two translations are slightly different but when taken together they lend new insight into the nature of Jacob’s struggle. The first translation clearly connotes a struggle, a serious attempt to defeat each other, that kicks up a cloud of dust. The second translation connotes love rather than animus. They embrace each other, something lovers usually do.

Love as a Tactic of War

Hostility and love can both be utilized as fighting tactics. When an enemy is assaulted he naturally braces himself for the impact. He guards his flank, secures his position and, if possible, regroups and launches a counter attack.

This is only when the enemy is alert to the danger and wise to the presence of the attacker. When the attacker disguises his intent in gestures of friendship and love while clandestinely planning an attack, the enemy is caught off guard.wrestling angels - innerstream

This is what happened between Jacob and the angel. When the angel first attacked Jacob, he tried to overpower him with force. They wrestled and kicked up a storm. Jacob, however, saw the attack coming and braced himself for the struggle. He fought back successfully and the angel perceived that he could not overcome him with force.

The angel then tried another tack. He attacked Jacob with love. He presented himself with warmth and friendship, apologized for previous aggressions and beguiled Jacob with acceptance and peace. Jacob soon lowered his guard and exposed a vulnerability that the angel immediately exploited. He struck and injured the hollow of Jacob’s thigh.

This is why the Torah repeats the fact that there was a struggle. “And a man wrestled with him (Jacob) until the break of dawn,” describes the first phase of the struggle, when the angel fought with animosity and force. “And Jacob’s thigh was strained as he wrestled with him,” describes the second phase of the struggle, the phase of love that the angel temporarily won.

The angel manipulated human nature for his own purposes. He turned a fierce debate into a calm discussion and, in doing so, deluded Jacob. Persuaded him to lower his guard and view his opponent as a partner and friend.

Assimilation

This transformation is the story of Jewish history. When we are persecuted and afflicted, we respond by raising our religious profile and by clinging to our identity and traditions.

When we enter a phase of prosperity and are accepted by the nations around us, we can be lulled into a false sense of complacency. We lower our guard and assimilate into the cultures of our host nations. (4)

Assimilation hurts us in ways that our enemies cannot. It strikes the hollow of our thigh, which prevents us from standing tall and disfigures our pride. We merge our traditions with those of our host culture and reject, or are ashamed of, our Jewishness.

Yet the march of assimilation will not overcome us because our destiny is assured by G-d. Just like Jacob, whose thigh was healed as the sun rose, so too will our ability to stand firm return as soon as the sun rises and shines. (5)

The prophet Isaiah promised that the sun will shine in the messianic era, when the aura of the divine will be manifest. Those warm divine rays will heal our thigh and strengthen our posture. We will once again stand tall, strong and proud of our Judaism. (6)

Jacob’s struggle foretold the future. Even in times of assimilation, even in the dark of  night, we must know that the sun will rise and that our thigh will recover.

Knowledge, however, is not enough. We must also take action. By resisting assimilation and recommitting to our traditions we actually rekindle the soul’s flame and trigger our sunrise. (7)

Footnotes:

  1. Bereishit Rabbah 21:2.
  2. Genesis 35: 25-26. By most accounts, Jacob struggled with Esau’s protective angel. See Bereishis Rabba, 73:3 and Midrash Tanchumah, 8.
  3. See Rashi’s Commentary (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105,) ibid.
  4. A story is told of a debate that took place during the French Russian war, between R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad, and his colleagues, the disciples of the Magid of Mezritch. His colleagues prayed for a French victory because it would bring emancipation and freedom for Jews. R. Schneur Zalman prayed for a Russian victory. Though conditions for Jews would not be ideal, he felt that it would spur Jews to a greater commitment to Torah.
    They agreed that he who would sound the Shofar first on the following Rosh Hashana would prevail. His colleagues arose early on Rosh Hashana and prayed quickly in order to sound the Shofar first. R. Schneur Zalman simply sounded the Shofar before the prayers began. The story underscores the fact that Jews often assimilate into those cultures that offer prosperity and acceptance.
  5. Genesis 32: 32.
  6. Isaiah 11: 9, 30: 26, 60: 1-3, 19-20.
  7. 6.This essay is based on commentary from Ksav Sofer (R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, Pressburg, 1815-1879) on Genesis 35: 25-26.