Shmuel Polin
Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Vayishlach: Jacob, the Angel and Art

Today, we have read from Parshas Vayishlach, which is one of the more difficult parashot of our Torah. This parsha describes one of the most classic scenes of our Torah: the story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Many rabbis have tried to draw meanings and understand the text differently to circumnavigate the confusion of this powerful scene. We most often review rabbis and their interpretations of this text, but I would like to do something different today. I would like to draw attention to some of the artwork that describes this scene because artists have contributed a powerful commentary to the text.

First, recall that the literary text from the parsha begins with Genesis 32:4-7, where Jacob returns to the land of Israel with the hope of reconciling with Esau. According to an account then told by Jacob’s angel/messenger, Esau has no interest in reconciling. Then, in Genesis 32:25-33, Jacob encounters the character we remember of the scene: either an angel that embodies Esau’s spirit or a person, with whom he wrestles until daybreak. During the struggle, Jacob suffers a dislocated hip, but he ultimately wins. He is then bestowed the name of Israel by the angel/person.

Rabbis have long questioned and interpreted this text differently. But something I have always found fascinating is how this scene is depicted in art. In a way, it is a visual midrash of the text. For instance, Rembrandt painted the scene in 1659, in one of his most famous pieces, entitled Jacob Wrestles the Angel. The piece is fascinating because it does not depict Jacob and the angel in a hostile struggle but rather in a loving embrace. Art historians have long interpreted the piece as reflecting a commentary by Rembrandt that the angel is, in fact, a canonized image of his mother Rebecca. The struggle is a loving embrace between mother and son.

Other artists offer other useful commentary and draw attention to Jacob’s wife, Rachel. Art commissioned during the same period from Eugene Delacroix appears to show Jacob and the angel in a lovers’ embrace. Art historians understand this embrace to be a commentary of not only the scene but also Jacob and Rachel’s love and relationship.

The scene has also picked up in Jewish art. Jewish artists such as Elisheva Neis and Marc Chagall also offer useful commentary of this scene. Marc Chagall’s artwork seems to be colored by his contemporary experience. For instance, Chagall painted the scene several times in his life. One of his earlier pieces, produced right after the war and the death of his wife in the 1950s, depicts a heartbreaking scene. The scene is in black and white, and both the angel and Jacob have upset faces. Later on, and further after the war, his 1960s artwork depicting the same scene is colorful and shows the two characters in a loving embrace.

But perhaps the timeliest and most relevant artwork of this scene to us today would be the scene as it is depicted by Elisheva Neis. She is a Jerusalem artist from the post-Soviet religious community who drashed the scene in a powerful way with a modern Israeli struggle. Her scene is of a young man dressed in an Israeli military uniform and wearing a kippah while struggling with a winged angelic creature.

I would venture to say her piece is a commentary on religion in the IDF. The struggle to be religious in the IDF is a real concern for the dati community. For example, this concern has resurfaced this week with new studies drawing attention to the community’s low rate of inclusion in national service.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.