One of the most memorable scenes in the Book of genesis is Jacob’s midnight wrestling match:
25. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. 27. And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” 28. So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 29. And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have strived with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” 30. And Jacob asked and said, “Now tell me your name,” and he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. 31. And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] “I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved.” [Genesis 32]
This passage has many questions which one could ask. Who is this man Jacob struggles with? IS he even a man? Based on 32:31 we can assume that at least Jacob thinks this is a divine messenger, if not God personally. His new name also points to such a conclusion, that he was striving with God. Rashi notes there is a tradition it was Esau’s guardian angel. Some commentators will say it is Esau, others one of the archangels, such as Michael or Gabriel.
There is a tradition concerning the angels insistence of leaving before dawn. The purpose of the angels was to sing praises to God. Since he was struggling with Jacob he was going to be late and unable to fulfill his purpose if this wrestling match continued. The rabbis are also clear the praises are those in Isaiah 6:3:
ג וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.
And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.
What the rabbis cannot agree on is how this is said. Either one set of angels says קדוש, “holy” another set says the next “holy” and a third say “Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” But some of the angels might say it every morning, some might say it once and never again. While debating this point, the talmudic Rabbis insist the people of Israel are superior to angels as Jews say all three praises every morning as part of the Morning Amidah.
I believe Jacob was fighting with Jacob and God at the same time. At the core of this fight was Jacob’s resistance to go home. Resistance is what keeps us from doing what we want to do and what we have the potential to do. Self doubt, a lack of conviction and confusion lead to resistance, which causes laziness, procrastination, and finding excuses for not moving forward. I’m very familiar with resistance, it tries to prevent me from writing every day of every week. I certainly got me for the last three weeks. Resistance delayed one d’var, and this crunching another one from ever getting written. It’s a hard fight, and one I constantly need to do, just as I’m trying to finish this very late once again. I’m sure each of us can think of a situation where we didn’t get done what we would have liked to, and somehow irrationally wasted time instead of being constructive.
By this, I don’t mean Shabbat rest of course. There is a time and a place for recharging the batteries. But how many time does someone surf the web during the workday instead of getting their tasks for the day done? Such a thing is resistance at work. Its those places we do waste time when we really shouldn’t. We could be more efficient, but we don’t.
The angel was really Jacob’s resistance. He knew he had to get out of Padan Aram, but going back is not easy, particularly on the news his brother, who is out to kill him, is on his way with 400 soldiers. As I once commented his gift of sheep may have been a delaying tatic. Horseback soldiers and sheep don’t get along very well- randomly moving animals make it hard to charge in a fast straight line. His positioning of his sons may have had some merit in their ability for battle: Levi and Simon, who later in this portion will commit wholesale murder against the town of Shechem to avnege the rape of their sister is near the front. Jacob is not a warrior, and he knows it. He’s never fought, but thought and tricked his way out of every situation he is in. Brute force is not his way.
When showing brute force against your own resistance, you deadlock. You still don’t get anything done but waste energy fighting the resistance, yet that resistance has a weakness — it hates being seen and identified, for then we see how ridiculous it really is and easily defeat it. So too with the angel — It really doesn’t want to be seen, but Jacob does see him face to face, and when he does he realizes he is strong enough to face his brother. Rashi’s comment about the angel being Easau’s guardian angel comes from a midrash which gives a parable of a king who trains his son not to be afraid of wild animals with a tame lion. Afterwards, feral dogs don’t bother the prince. So too with Esau’s angel: if he was defeated, so could Easu. Or put another way: if one can defeat our dire expectations of an issue, how much easier when we encounter the real thing?
One of our biggest enemies is ourselves and our negative thinking, the thinking of “I can’t.” Jacob was victim to this, but spent the night before his encounter with Esau fighting this negative impact. I have found in our modern world there is a lot that tries to tempt human beings into believing they cannot do on their own, they must have some external force do for them. Commercialism tells us that a new television set, car or brand of beverage will be the external force that lets us do what we cannot otherwise do. Some believe this external force is drugs or alcohol, only to fall into a downward spiral of addiction. This is false thinking. God could have done the same as the Red sea and drowned Esau the way he drowned the egyptians. He did not flash-flood the Jabbok river and wash away Esau, but instead got Jacob to do some hard, painful thinking. We need to do the struggle within our selves, not let an external force, including God do it for us.
The phrase “yes we can” is a little tarnished right now, but it is still true. As any grammarian will tell you, “We” requires more than one “I.” When I am not believing “Yes I can” then the phrase is really “Yes, they can.” We must first believe in ourselves as individuals and then as a collective. Jacob had to believe in himself before he could transmit that ideas to his sons. His sons understood it in their own ways. Ruben and Judah will make mistakes, and try to make up for them. Joseph will too, and as we will read in the next few weeks, Joseph and Judah will only have themselves and God to depend on in some very difficult situations.