Genesis 32:4-33 - Wrestling with Yourself

Can you remember the portion you read on your barmitzvah or batmitzvah? Does its content have any special resonance for you? Well I read today’s portion – Vayishlach -at my barmitzvah portion and luckily it’s one of my favourites. It contains the most enigmatic drama in Torah; Jacob’s famous wrestling match. I think this is the key story of what it means to be a Jew. I will try to explain why, but first let me recap the story.

As Jacob neared Canaan, he sent messengers to his estranged brother Esau. They returned, with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob, with an army of 400 men. Jacob prepared for the worst. He was terrified; the last words he had heard from Esau 22 years earlier, were: “I will kill my brother Jacob”. That was because, through outrageous lying, Jacob had cheated Esau out of his blessing from their father Isaac. So Jacob feverishly prayed - in fact this is the only extended prayer in Genesis - and reminded God of his unconditional promise of protection. In case that didn’t work, he also sent a lavish gift of 550 animals, to try to make amends for what he had stolen.

Jacob then put his family in a safe place and crossed the ford of the river Jabok. Now this was Jacob’s Rubicon moment; he was on the border of Canaan, so the forthcoming struggle was an attempt to prevent his return to his promised land. ‘Jabok’ is an anagram of ‘Jacob’; symbolically it was the place where he was to be turned ‘inside out’.

Biblical characters were often afraid of their mission. Moses at the burning bush told God: “Who am I? They won’t believe in me.” Jonah ran away and asked to be thrown into the sea, rather than deliver God’s message. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, famous for his idea of the hierarchy of needs even called the fear that comes from feeling personally inadequate, ‘The Jonah complex.’ This is the fear that we don’t deserve our position and are not able to take on the responsibility of greatness. We are imposters.

Despite God’s reassurance, this was the fear Jacob felt: “Who am I to stand before my brother Esau, knowing that I will continue the covenant, even though I have treated him so badly?” Jacob’s courage had failed him and he was tempted to run away. That reminds me of a man who tripped and accidentally fell over a cliff. He grabbed a little plant and hung onto it for all he was worth. He cried out desperately, “If there is anyone up there, give me a hand and help me!” A voice came from heaven. “Don’t worry. I will put My hand underneath you, only let go and trust in Me.” After a long pause, the man said, “Is there anyone else up there?!”

Now courage does not mean having no fear. It means having the fear, and overcoming it. In our story, whilst utterly alone, Jacob had a powerful religious experience, in the form of a mysterious encounter. Previously he had responded to difficult situations with trickery. But that night, for the first time in his life, he didn’t run away or try to deceive. A ‘being’ wrestled with him until dawn. Jacob refused to let him go, until he had received a blessing. The assailant asked him what he was called, and Jacob replied “Jacob”, and he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” And in the morning, Jacob had a limp.

So who was Jacob wrestling with? Just now I used the word ‘being’, but in different places in the Bible the assailant is called a ‘man’, an ‘Angel’ or even ‘God’. The ‘being’ seems to represent all the enemies Jacob had created through his deceptiveness and sharp dealing, and especially Esau, or at least Esau’s alter ego.

Jacob was re-enacting, in the depths of the night, the struggle he had experienced in the dark of Rebecca’s womb. Although he didn’t fully master Esau that night, he did master the situation. Receiving the blessing, meant Esau no longer held a grudge, but instead acknowledged Jacob’s right to the covenant. Unlike the blessing he got by lying to Isaac, Jacob had this time received a genuine blessing, through his own courage and honesty.

Jacob was also wrestling with his younger self. As a child, Jacob had wanted to be Esau - the elder, stronger, and the one who was loved more by their father Isaac. As a result of Jacob trying to be someone he wasn’t, there was tension and conflict in his life: his wives argued, he fell out with other men, he was rich materially, but impoverished spiritually.

Previously, in response to Isaac’s question ‘What is your name?’, Jacob had lied and said, “I am Esau, your firstborn”. But now when struggling, he acknowledged that he really was Jacob; he stopped trying to deceive himself. That night, he finally threw off the image of Esau, the person he had wanted to be, which he had carried with him all those years. This was the supremely insightful moment of Jacob’s life, when he realised he could overcome an adversary, without needing to deceive or be devious.

So his name was changed from ‘Jacob’, which literally means trickster, a ‘heel’; to ‘Israel’, which means ‘God-fighter’, the person of conscience, who deals with people directly (Yashir), rather than manipulatively. The change meant that although Jacob was physically maimed, he could now emotionally deal with whatever he would face in the morning, the long-feared retribution for his adolescent sins, the broken relationship with his brother. Jacob had thought that the objective of life was ‘what to have’; now he realised that ‘how to be’ was far more important.

Israel the ‘God-fighter’ had argued with God, who didn’t let him off the hook. His relationship with God was a way for him to wrestle with his conscience. The answer to Jacob’s prayer, was not for God to miraculously solve his problems for him, but instead Jacob had to find the courage to change himself. Yet, although his name was changed to Israel, people often still called him Jacob; he didn’t always act the person he wanted to be. Changing behaviour and habits is a never-ending task, which is why we need Yom Kippur every year.

I love the idea of wrestling with ourselves. For Jacob and us, this involves not comparing ourselves to others, but finding out who we truly are. It means accepting that some people will like us and what we stand for, while others will inevitably not. It is better to earn the respect of some, by being ourselves, than to seek the fleeting popularity of all.

Maybe the wrestling match is a metaphor, for the Jewish people battling the rest of the world and feeling alone. Perhaps Jews are meant to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols and iniquities of the age, to be true to Jewish values, while seeking to be a role model to others. Being a ‘God-fighter’ is both a burden and an opportunity.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, didn’t believe in a personal God, but wrote: “The God impulse in us, is not fear but hope, not helplessness but self-help, not despondency but courage, not the obfuscation of the mind, but the light of reason, not the belittlement of what man is, but the exultation of what he might be.”

For Kaplan, being human inevitably meant a struggle - between our fears and hopes, despair and courage, helplessness and power. Like Jacob, when we struggle to find ourselves, we confront our destiny, and can emerge, better able to fulfil the potential of who we should be. Wrestling isn’t easy, you may end up with a limp, but for me, there is no better image, of what it means to be Jewish. Shabbat shalom.