Struggle leads to growth

Lane Steinger is Rabbi Emeritus of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community.

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

I am a sports fan. An unashamed, unabashed sports fan. To be sure, I want to see a better world, one that is fairer and more just, one in which there is respect for all persons and living things, for the planet, its populations and its ecosystems, and I hope that I may make some contribution toward that better world. Nonetheless, I am an avid sports fan.

I am aware that there are more than a few jokes about sports appearing in Scripture. For instance, did you know that baseball is in the Bible? Right from the start it says, “In the big inning …”

Sports and Scripture frequently do seem to complement one another. In both, we sometimes find stories that speak to the drama, and occasionally even to the meaning, of life. It’s not surprising, then, that when what might be construed as an actual athletic contest is mentioned in Torah or TaNaK, it rivets my attention.

Such is the case with our Torah portion this week. Jacob and Esau, rival siblings and estranged twins, are preparing to meet after not seeing each other for at least two decades. Jacob arrives at the River Jabbok, the northern boundary of the land of Canaan, the territory promised to his parents and grandparents, as well as to him and his descendants. He anxiously prepares for the encounter with his brother, first by ferrying his family and then their possessions across the stream. That night, states the Sedra (Genesis 32:25-33):

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not overcome him, he wrenched the socket of his hip so that Jacob’s hip socket was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go for the dawn is breaking,” but he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” And he replied, “Jacob.” Then he said, “No longer shall yourname be Jacob, but Yisrael/Israel, ki sarita/for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, “Tell me please your name,” and he said, “Why do you ask my name?” and blessed him there. So Jacob named the place P’niel/the face of God, for he thought, I have seen God face to face and have survived. The sun rose upon him as he passed P’nuel, and he was limping because of his hip. That’s why to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle on the hip socket because Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

This anecdote of the extraordinary wrestling match discloses several things. It suggests how P’niel/P’nuel got its name (32:31). It relates why the Israelites (and later kosher-keeping Jews) did (and do) not consume the hind quarters of mammals eligible to be eaten (32:32-33). Most importantly, it depicts how Jacob’s name — the name of his family and the people descended from him – became known as Yisrael/Israel (32:28-29). The passage conveys all that and much more. Like any good sporting event, Jacob’s wrestling match with “the man” teaches life lessons as well.

Jacob’s opponent is mysterious. The text (32:2) simply labels him “a man,” but clearly the other wrestler is more than that. The eighth century BCE northern prophet Hosea recounted that Jacob “strove with a divine messenger and prevailed” (Hosea 12:5). For the Alexandrian Jews of the late pre-Common Era, “a divine messenger” meant “an angel.” In the Midrash, our rabbis generally followed this understanding and, in some cases, specified it further. In the third century CE, Rabbi Hama son of Hanina said that the “man” was “Esau’s guardian angel/saro shel Eysav hayah” (Genesis Rabah 77:2), and other Rabbinic Sages identified him as the archangel Michael (Tanhuma Va-yishlach 7). 

But it doesn’t end there. A millennium ago, Maimonides described the whole episode as “a prophetic vision” (Moreh N’vuchim/Guide for the Perplexed 2:42). The late 20th century chief rabbi of the British Empire, Joseph Hertz, following the implication of verses 25, 29 and 31, held that “Jacob was left alone — with God” (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, page 123). And psychoanalyst Dorothy Zeligs opined in “Psychoanalysis and the Bible” that, “Even as within himself Jacob experienced the battle between different aspects of his personality, so the figure with whom he struggles is a mirrorlike reflection of the self, with the forces of good and evil engaged in dramatic intrapsychic conflict. Jacob was wrestling with his own projected image of himself.”

Whatever the interpretation – and there are more (see, e.g., Dr. Nahum Sarna’s excellent and thorough Excursus 24 “Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel” in “The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis”), and although Meir Sternberg (in “Poetics of Biblical Narrative”) points out that this incident illustrates an important aspect of Scripture which he terms “the permanence of ambiguity – the message should be unmistakable. 

Like Jacob, sooner or later we, too, will arrive at a watershed in our lives. Like Jacob, we also will encounter struggles that might well leave their marks upon us. Like Jacob, we might emerge from those struggles in some way diminished (the Patriarch limped thereafter) but, because of the struggle itself, we will have grown and become more than we were before (Jacob was transformed to Israel – and not in name only).

May each of our personal struggles have good outcomes for us. May every vicarious life experience, whether sporting event or weekly Torah Reading – or whatever might lie in between – continue to instruct and to inspire us.

Shabbat Shalom!