Vayishlach: The Paradox of the Righteous who Suffer

The believer in God must account for one thing: the existence of evil; the atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else. – Milton Steinberg

In preparation for his first meeting with Esau, from whom he had fled from some twenty years prior, Jacob sends messengers with the greeting: “I am at peace with you and seek your friendship” (Rashi, 32:6).  Esau, however, returns not the greeting but heads toward his brother girded for war.  “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed” (32:8).  But why should Jacob, in the midst of fulfilling the direct divine command to “return unto the land of your fathers”, be afraid and distressed?  The Midrash (Gen. R. 76:2) answers that “from this, however, we learn that the righteous has no assurance in this world.”

Here, then, we arrive at the great paradox – the existence of evil in the face of a good God – exemplified by Jacob, the quintessential righteous person caught in an insufferable situation (tzadik v’ra lo).  But Jacob is not so fast to accept the conclusion of the Midrash, articulating his struggle in prayer:

O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good. I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps. Deliver me, I pray Thee (na), from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children. And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. (Genesis 32:10-13).

Jacob opens his prayer, explains Rashi, by making reference to the divine promise of safety – a promise made in God’s appearance to Jacob when he left the land (28:15), and again in God’s direct command to Jacob to return to the land (31:3).  As such, Jacob conveys his dismay over the injustice of coming under existential threat saying, “with these two promises I come before you” (Rashi 32:10).  He continues, however, saying, “I am not worthy” (katonti), thus humbly acknowledging that he may not, in fact, merit the promises.  The prayer concludes, in perfect chiastic form, with his petition for help, “I pray Thee (na)”, suggesting a request for an undeserved favor (Ohr HaHaim), followed by a reference to the explicit divine promise for offspring who are now in mortal danger.

Promise, Unworthiness, Unworthiness, Promise – Jacob is struggling.  Indeed, Jacob, whose only desire is to fulfill the will of God but finds himself in the crosshairs of his brother’s malevolence, is struggling with the paradox of the righteous who suffer.  His struggle is then given expression in an enigmatic wrestling match:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ … And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’ (Genesis 32:25-31)

The Zohar (Vayishlach 170) explains that the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled was the angel of adversity, Samael, who is also the arch angel of Esau.  On this, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (Kli Yakar 32:31) writes that the name Samael is a composite of Samei El – blind to God – bespeaking his goal to blind man to the existence of God, “to make him deny God’s existence.”   And how did Samael seek to make Jacob deny God?  Through the very issue that he was wrestling with: why do the righteous suffer?  This, I propose, was the battle that Jacob waged with the arch angel of Esau.

Why do the righteous suffer?  It was the battle of his life, waged within the recesses of his soul (Maimonides, Guide, II:42).  Jacob, however, wrestled not with some theoretical theodicy but with the most tangible manifestation of the paradox: Esau and his four hundred man army coming to annihilate him and his family.  By the end of the long night he had, as the angel testifies, “prevailed”, he had come to terms with the existence of evil in the face of a good God, declaring, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

To see the face of God, notes the Talmud (Berachot 7a), is to attempt to fathom the paradox of the righteous suffering.  Jacob expresses his new found understanding in the words: “and my life is preserved”.  If there were no God, as one solution to the paradox would argue, evil would reign free and a man of the tent like Jacob would, by all accounts, be decimated by a man of the field like Esau.  The very survival of a Jacob, then, proves that there is a God, a good God, an involved God.  This does not assure that the righteous will prosper, as the Midrash noted, but it does assure that they will, albeit with a limp, survive.

The paradox of the righteous who suffers is answered, paradoxically, by the suffering of the righteous.  It is with this understanding that Jacob prevailed in his struggle and was thus named “Israel”.  And it is by this name that his children are called, for it is they who bear the name of this struggle so bear witness to the veracity of its message.  Indeed, the message is only discernible in the collective and not in the individual.  When Jacob exclaimed “my life is preserved”, he understood it collectively – the righteous nation would be preserved; and when he was injured “in the hollow of his thigh”, he understood it collectively – some in the righteous nation would suffer, even unto death.

Some, but not all; for as Mark Twain famously noted: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality?”  The secret is God, a good God, an involved God, without which the people of Israel would have, by all accounts of history, disappeared completely – yet they, albeit with a limp, survive.

And it is this limp, symbolized in the prohibition against eating “the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh” (32:33), which serves as eternal reminder[1] that “even though they will experience much suffering in exile at the hands of the nations and at the hands of the children of Esau, they are assured that they will not be destroyed but will endure” (Sefer Hahinuch #3).  The sinew of the thigh-vein, source of the limp, is the sign of the suffering yet surviving righteous nation and the symbolic reminder of our response to the paradox of why the righteous suffer.

The believer in God, then, accounts for the existence of evil by noting Israel’s survival against all odds.  Evil does not disprove God.  On the contrary, the very fact that there is evil and yet Israel is preserved is the greatest testimony to God’s existence – and so declares God Himself:  “I am the Lord; and beside Me there is no savior … therefore ye are My witnesses” (Isaiah 43:11-12).

[1] The symbol will remain as long as we eat meat.  In the opinion that we will not eat meat in the days of the Messiah, indeed, we will no longer need this symbol, for as the Sefer Hahinuch concludes the explanation on the gid hanasheh: “So too when the sunrise of the coming of the Messiah takes place we will be healed from our pain and redeemed speedily in our days.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
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