Mordechai Silverstein

God is in Your Corner

In the greatest wrestling bout ever billed, Yaakov went up against an angel. The match went on for what seemed to be an eternity, seemingly evenly matched. As dawn approached, the battle was at its zenith but its time limit had arrived. Something had to give. The Torah described that moment in these words: “And he saw that he had not won out against him and he touched his hip socket and Yaakov’s hip socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him.” (Genesis 32:26)

This verse has perplexed commentators on several counts. First, we note that in the first part of this verse, pronouns (in bold print) are used instead of names and while it seems obviously who is being referred to, nevertheless, there is some ambiguity. Secondly, it seems bizarre that an angel should be unable to overcome a human being in a battle (even if the opponent happens to be Yaakov)! Ramban (Spain 13th century) clues us in that the angel was unable to overcome Yaakov because God did not permit him to since the angel was sent to bless him and not harm him. He concludes that the angel injured Yaakov only because Yaakov represented the righteous in all generations who would similarly suffer at the hand of Esau (Rome, Christianity, etc.). Hizkuni (France 13th century) claimed that the purpose of the injury was so that Yaakov should know that his struggle had been with an angel and not with a human.

Unsurprisingly, the midrashic inspirations for these interpretations are even more fantastic: “[This is like] an athlete who wrestled the king’s son while the king stood close by watching. The athlete [for obvious reasons] threw the match, as it is written: ‘And he (the angel) saw that it was not allowed him’” (Compare this translation of the verse with one above.) The midrash offers an alternative parable: ‘[This is like] a king who owned a wild dog and a tame lion. The king took his son and befriended him to the lion so that if the wild dog should ever want to attack the son, the king would say to him that a lion could not stand up against his son, so how could you (the wild dog) possibly contend with him?’ The midrash also provides us with the lesson we are intended to learn from the second parable: “Thus, if the nations of the world should come to battle Israel, the Holy One Blessed be He will say to them that ministering angel could not defeat Yaakov, how do they expect to?” (Genesis Rabbah 77:3)

Yaakov’s wrestling match with the angel was a signature event in his life and in the life of the nation. It marks him as the true father of the children of Israel and symbolically establishes him as a model for the nation’s relationship with God and the world. His life and that of the nation would be one of perpetual struggle both with God and with the world around him. Nevertheless, there is no room for despair since God is ultimately in Yaakov’s corner.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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