Vayishlach: Shadow-Wrestling

…And a man wrestled him until the break of dawn. (Bereishit 32:25.)

The dark shadow looms, eyes glittering, teeth gleaming:
the moment of reckoning has come and I’m ready.
Simultaneously we leap – a choreography of motion,
a kaleidoscope of images floods through my mind.

The delicate child loved by my mother,
I fight as though battling for my father’s regard.
I was the frail one, ashamed of my weakness:
I trailed behind Esau in each physical fray.

Years of hard labour have tempered and weathered me:
tough sinews, strong bones – now we’re well-matched.
I saw myself then as his moral superior:
buying his birthright, taking his due.

When I think of it now, I’m distracted by shame,
I loosen my grip and he almost prevails.
Forced to flee from his anger, I dreamed of the ladder:
God’s promise sustains me – I tighten my hold.

Mysterious shadow who foresees all my moves:
he knows where I’ve been and whom I’ve become.
He has called me by name – and we are both one.

Who was this mysterious antagonist who wrestled with Jacob? Commentators, both ancient and modern, have pondered this question. The text introduces him as a man; the Midrash and earlier commentaries elevate to him to the status of angel; while Jacob himself says, “…I have seen God face to face…”(Bereishit 32:31). The early commentators almost unanimously describe the enigmatic being as a malevolent messenger, Esau’s guardian angel, sent to weaken Jacob prior to the pending confrontation. Nechama Leibowitz suggests that before Jacob encountered Esau in the flesh, his spirit struggled with that of Esau.
The Rashbam sees the angel as God-sent, to prevent Jacob from fleeing, thus forcing him to face up to his moral responsibility. Benno Jacob (1862-1945) a German bible commentator writes, “God answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent.”
In his book Covenants and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes Jacob’s long-standing desire to be in Esau’s place: struggling with him in the womb, Jacob is born clutching Esau’s heel; he buys his birthright; dresses in his clothes and impersonates him; takes his blessing and answers his blind father’s question by claiming to be Esau. “Esau is everything Jacob is not. He is the first-born…He is strong, full of energy, a skilled hunter… [and] he has his father’s love.” Rabbi Sacks describes the wrestling match as Jacob’s inner battle with existential truth, a battle to uncover his true identity – whether he was the man who longed to be Esau or the man whose destiny lay in transmitting the covenant of Abraham.
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS posits that Jacob might have been wrestling with his own conscience, torn between his very human desire to run away and the divine impulse impelling him to stay and make amends with Esau. This position may find support in the text, “you have striven with God and with men.”(Bereishit 32:29) By remaining, Jacob sheds his identity as a deceiver and takes on the character of Israel who wrestles with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them. Although he is wounded physically after the struggle, he is described as shalem, meaning “safe” or “whole”(Bereishit 33:18). The Sefat Emet understands this to mean he has acquired an integrity he didn’t have before.


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