Parshat Vayishlah, which sees Yaacov Avinu return to Eretz Israel, is the critical point in the narrative of Humash whereby the embryonic version of Am Israel is born, transformed from a mere family into a multi-tribe, variagated nation. This is anticipated by Yaacov splitting his family into two camps “Mahanaim” and punctuated by Hashems’ renaming of Yaacov as Israel, with the promise that kings will issue forth from him. Soon, Am Israel will expand from a single household into a body politic that will require kings, and the family God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will also assume a new name, with His Commandments to be revealed to the entire Hebrew nation.
At moments such as these, the Torah’s choice of language can be very illuminating, or at least extremely important. And, I would argue, there is a desperate need to shine a light onto the seemingly random and arguably bizarre elements of the rapidly-unfolding plot. As often happens with Biblical text, we are so familiar with the plot elements from a young age, that we sometimes forget to ask important questions. Why does Jacob wrestle with an ambiguous man/divine being in his sleep? Why does a divine being need to “cheat” (as it were) in his contest with Jacob by magically damaging his hip? Why is this important enough that we are commanded to memorialize the sciatic nerve for all time by removing it from slaughtered meat? Why does this story take place at such a pivotal moment in the Torah and what is it trying to tell us? I suggest that there is much more to this short and fantastical narrative than meets the eye.
If we look very closely at the juxtaposition of the plot elements and the words used to describe them, we might notice a remarkable narrative symmetry between the creation of Am Israel in this Parsha, and the creation of the human race earlier in Breishit. First, let us examine these parallels impartially, so that we might hopefully be able to extract new meaning from this story.
I want to focus on three words that are rare enough in Humash to be significant anywhere, but are astonishing to encounter here: Vaiezer, Tzela, and Ekev. “Vaia’ar Yaacov meod, Vaeizer..” and Jacob was very fearful and he was distressed: the word used to describe Jacob’s stress is identical to the one used to describe the creation of Adam HaRishon “Vaei-izer hashem elokim et ha Adam…” In Parshat Breishit, the word Vaeiizer (and he created) is masoretically spelled with a double letter Yud, and there are about a dozen Midrashim in Breishit Rabba about the significance of the double Yud, namely that it teaches us about the duality of human existence. Man is both Godly and animal like. Man has a Yeitzer Tov (good inclination) and a Yeitzer Ra (evil inclination). And so on. But this duality is not dualism (perhaps indicated by both Yuds inhabiting the same word): though these attributes may always pull in different directions and may slow us down, we are commanded to press the Yeitzer HaRa, too, in the service of God.
Collectively, what the “Vaei-itzer” midrashim point to is that despite this tension, or more accurately said, because of this tension, Man has no limit to his achievement EXCEPT for God.
Lest you think that the “Vaeizer” in Parshat Vayishlah is of no relation to the “vaei-itzer” in Parshat Breishit (because, afterall, here the word means “And (he) was distressed” consider the immediate consequence of this distress: Jacob divides his camp (himself essentially) into two! Moreover, you don’t need me in order to appreciate the fact that duality is the story of Jacob’s life (polar opposite but sometime interchangeable twin brothers – Jacob and Esav; two wives and two wife-substitutes; a dead goat in place of his favorite son; Jacob and Jaboc – Jacob’s night-time struggle against himself or his evil twin, and the ongoing internal contradictions that dominate his life: ankle-biter vs leader, dirty trickster vs man of God, etc). It is therefore entirely fitting that Vaeitzer – the very word used by the sages as a springboard to examine Man’s metaphysical duality, appears here to announce Jacob’s distress brought on by his own internal contradictions.
Here is where it gets really interesting. Jacob’s Jaboc adversary touches his hip, and causes him to limp – and the word used for ‘limped” is TZL (tzala/tzela). Before we get to this very rare biblical word; where else in the Torah have we seen this narrative element: God maiming a human body part at night when a person sleeps? It’s uncommon enough that, to me, the answer is obvious: God puts Adam to sleep and wrenches his rib (Tzela) from him , thus creating Hava. Again, despite the distinct meaning of the word Tzela in the Breishit vs Vayishlah, the parallels are uncanny enough.
Moreover, the word Tzela appears only in three places in the Torah: creation of Hava, maiming of Jacob’s hip, and the walls of the Mishkan, where Man encounters God. The third instance of the word Tzela, as part of the mishkan, actually goes a long way in helping us understand the story of woman’s creation from a man’s rib. On the face of it, this is a grizzly and unnecessary narrative detail. Unnecessary, because only a few Torah lines before this story, God is said to have created Man and Woman simultaneously, identically, in his image “zahar ve nekeva bara otam” seemingly without the need for complicated rib surgery. This apparent contradiction is no contradiction at all, if we remember the idea of Vaei-izer (and, of course, drawing heavily on ideas first developed in “The Lonely Man of Faith” by Rav Soloveitchik, and expounded on further by Rav Sacks), that duality is integral to the human condition. Hava is both a separate, foreign, independent and equal entity, vis a vis Adam; but he also senses that she is “bone of (his) bone, flesh of (his) flesh.” When the couples’ eyes are opened and they are expelled from Gan Eden, Adam begins to grapple with this and therefore gives his wife a name, Hava (so far she had only been known as “woman”). Perhaps this is why the word Tzela also appears in the Mishkan, alongside two human figures, a man and a woman. The presence of God appears in the place where their gaze meets, the place where they are forced to confront the contradictions of physical connection and metaphysical otherness.
What, then, can we discover from the rare appearance of this word in the only other biblical maiming incident – the wrenching of Jacob’s hip? Applying these same ideas of Vayei-itzer, that is the dual, dialectic nature of man’s existence, I would propose the following. Taking the text, and Jacob’s own words, at face value, we know that he is wrestling with God – attempting to, as it were, make contact and see the face of Hashem. This idea sounds radical to us because it runs so contrary to the vestigial hellenistic idolatries that are so prevalent in modern culture. In common hellenistic tropes, Man is forever relegated to an animal-like state. Any attempts to reach higher is called hubris, and is punishable by the fates. This brings to mind another famous heel (Jacob’s name means heel because he came into this world grasping at the heel of Esav), that of Achilles. I will not dwell on this, rather profane, example, but it serves as a place-holder for the cliche notion that man is punished when he strives to be like God. A better illustration of this is to look at where else the word heel (Ekev) appears in the Torah. As we’ve just noted Jacob grabs Esav’s heel as he is born. But recall, also, that the Nahash from Breishit is said to “strike at your heel..” This tempting idea, that the Nahash will forever act as an impediment to Man, gives rise to the concept of “original sin” and is ultimately rejected by the Torah. “Ein Nahash be Yaacov” says Bilam (There is no soothsayer/serpent in Yaacov), and I suggest that one reading of this prophecy is that Jacob’s human limitations are not an impediment on his path forward, but rather quite the opposite.
How so? We are conditioned to read the story of the wrestling match between Jacob and God as adversarial, and so too with the maiming of the hip. To the ear of a modern reader, inculcated by western hellenism, damaging the hip is a deterrent and a punishment for daring to approach God in this way. But what I think the Tzela connection to Breishit and to the Mishkan shows us, is that we need not think of Jacob’s limp, indeed of all of our limping, as limiting. Jacob strives with God and survives (thrives in fact) BECAUSE, and not in spite of the fact, that he remains thoroughly grounded in the human condition, never for a moment trying to break free of it.
Many philosophies, theologies, political movements, and so-called scientific disciplines have long argued that the path to progress requires us to transcend, dispose of, or replace our inherited human grounding; that is: our habits, natures, instincts, traditions, and inherited norms, with behaviors and norms that are supposedly better in some theoretical sense. I learn, from the story of Jacob and Jaboc, that we must be weary of any such attempts to create a new human being; any innovation that seeks to radically unmoor our existence from what George Eliot called the “sweet habits of blood;” or what Edmund Burke referred to as “the little platoon we belong to in society.” We must similarly oppose, viscerally and to the utmost, any offers of accelerating the walking pace on the slow road to Godly redemption. Our human limitation, the limp that we inherited from our forefather Jacob, might appear to slow us down. In the story of Jaboc, we see that it earns Israel the greatest blessing of all (to paraphrase Jacob’s words): to have seen the face of God, but to remain a human being.