(taken from a November 24, 2007 d’var Torah on Parashat Va’yishlach by Irene G. Plotzker)
Today, I am going to focus on wrestling. Not WWE.
By the way, I am the only one in my family who does not know any wrestling moves. Whenever my husband tried to teach me, I’d just start giggling uncontrollably. My daughter was on Concord’s wrestling team for about a month. And my son was on school wrestling teams for a few years; I remember that watching the seventh graders wrestle reminded me of my trying to dress my 3-year-olds.
Today’s parashah includes the incident when Jacob is left alone at night, wrestles with a man (according to the text) until daybreak and is rewarded with the name “Yisrael,” one who strives with HaShem . Most of us are familiar with two interpretations of this story. One: the “man” is an angel whose re-naming of Jacob is then made official by HaShem later in the text. Two: Jacob is wrestling with himself in a prophetic dream.
Rambam (Maimonides) agrees with the second interpretation, and the Zohar goes farther by declaring that the confrontation takes place on Yom Kippur, certainly a time for self-examination (http://www.ou.org/shabbat/recipes/vayishlach62.htm ) . And it makes sense. Jacob is about to confront his past, in the form of his brother Esau, and he is lying alone under the stars as he had all those years ago when he first left home. As for Jacob’s physical injury, apparently he was a very active sleeper and hurt his thigh while thrashing about. This interpretation of the story appeals to our modern sensibilities, and it’s something we can all relate to.
But let’s see what we can learn from the first interpretation, that this is an actual, physical wrestling match with a divine being. The rabbis whose teachings are recorded in Bereishit Rabbah (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis II, pp. 710-713), living in the time of Roman domination, while claiming this is a physical wrestling match, nevertheless interpret it in an allegorical manner. In the view of R. Hana b. R. Hanina, for example, Jacob’s wrestling opponent is the guardian angel of Esau (a view Rashi agrees with roughly 1000 years later). But R. Hana and his colleagues also see analogies with their world, with Esau, also known as “Edom,” standing in for Rome. R. Hanina b. Isaac then interprets Jacob’s triumph over Esau’s thusly, in terms of Israel’s survival versus Rome: “So, if the nations of the world come to join issue with Israel, the Holy One, blessed by He, will say to them: ‘Your guardian angel could not prevail against Israel; how much less can you!’” The thigh injury is interpreted as a sign concerning the “righteous men who would descend from him, namely, the generation of destruction.” This refers to the many rabbis killed during the Hadrianic persecutions (132-135 C.E.), such as the rabbis we read about in the Martyrology service on Yom Kippur.
Ramban (Nachmanides), writing in the thirteenth century, elaborates on this interpretation and how the rabbis were tortured by the Romans, and then draws a parallel with the experiencesof subsequent generations, likely including his own (Ramban Commentary, Genesis, Chavel trans., p. 406): “And there are other generations in which they have done to us such things as these and even worse, but we have endured and it has passed over us, just as it is hinted in the verse ‘And Jacob came in peace’” (or, Jacob emerged whole). This then refers to the medieval persecutions of the Jews and the fact that the Jews survived in spite of them.
Similarly, according to Sefer HaChinuch, a book written in 13th century Spain, ( as cited as http://www.ou.org/shabbat/recipes/vayishlach62.htm ), just as the guardian angel of Esau tried and failed to destroy Jacob, so too the various enemies throughout the generations who will seek to destroy Israel will fail. Jacob is physically limping, but spiritually whole. As the rays of the sun heal Jacob’s injury, “so the sun of the messianic era would heal his people.”
In the nineteenth century, closer to our own era, Nachman Krochmal writes in Moreh Nevukhei Hazeman [Guide for the Perplexed in this Age], as cited by Nechama Leibowitz (Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 368), “The essence of a nation is not synonymous with its physical existence but with its spiritual character…No nation disappears until the spirit animating it, is destroyed and disappears.”
Finally, Nechama Leibowitz (in the 20th century) sums up these commentaries by writing that, not only does Jacob (and then all subsequent generations of Israel) emerge whole from the ordeal with Esau’s guardian angel (and with Rome and all subsequent persecutors), but he “enjoys his adversary’s blessing. The breaking of the dawn involves not merely the victory over every adversary, but also his blessing with which he will bless us.” (Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 370)
What I feel is most important for us to think about today is that Jacob has to wrestle in order to get his adversary’s blessing. He cannot be rewarded for passivity. Similarly, we must continue to wrestle, spiritually and intellectually, to truly gain sustenance from Judaism. Halachah is not black-and-white. If it were, no more responsa would have to be written, and we would not need a local rabbi to make legal decisions for the congregation. Like all legal systems, halachah evolves over time as communities evolve. This means we need to wrestle with decisions concerning what can and should change versus what can’t and shouldn’t. Otherwise, we are reduced to being unthinking, uncritical, passive followers. And unthinking passivity is not what Judaism needs if it is to thrive in 21st century America.
In one additional commentary, by Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, Jacob is thinking of fleeing Esau and the angel is sent to stop him. Much as Jacob feared to confront Esau, too many of us are unwilling to examine and really confront where we are and where we are headed if we simply continue as we are. Think about it: If Jacob had not been forced to wrestle, whether physically with an angel or metaphorically with himself, what might have happened to him? And if we refuse to wrestle with our present and our possible futures, what will become of us?