We began our discussion of the saga of Jacob’s life with commentary on his failure to translate his introverted qualities into true introspection. We continued by investigating the role that dreaming plays in his emergence into adulthood. In this week’s parsha Jacob’s inner life once again takes center stage in his creative and moral development, as he finds himself alone on the banks of the Jabbok River the night before he is to be reunited with his long-estranged brother Esau.
The image is symbolically dramatic. Over the course of his life, Jacob has left his family behind and built a new one. Returning home now, he retraces the steps of his journey in more than merely geographical terms. Twenty years earlier Jacob was alone after fleeing his brother. Now, after sending his entire family and all of their possessions over the river ahead of him toward Esau, he finds himself left alone again. These two periods of solitude serve as opening and closing climaxes in the symmetry of the narrative—even subtly bookended by a sunset when Jacob leaves home and a sunrise upon his return. Just as his first taste of solitude generated a dream that would change his life forever (in a place that he will visit again by the end of our parsha), on the riverbank Jacob now enters into the event that defines his legacy to this day.
No sooner has his family successfully forded the river than Jacob finds himself entangled in a mysterious wrestling match that lasts through the night. As dawn is breaking, the unknown adversary wrenches Jacob’s hip out of its socket, intending to finish the fight. But Jacob continues wrestling, and insists that he will not let his challenger go until he receives the anonymous other’s blessing. The unnamed opponent asks for Jacob’s name, and then declares that he “shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).
This is one of the best known and most perplexing passages in the entire Torah. There are countless interpretations from commentators throughout the centuries on the meaning of the entire incident. Some take the identity of Jacob’s enigmatic wrestling partner to be an angel, a demon or God, while others argue it could be Esau, just a stranger, or even a spirit representing Jacob himself. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s begin with the basic assumption that Jacob has some serious inner baggage to sort out. He is returning home as a bona fide prophet, about to encounter his older twin brother who stirs up his deepest insecurities and earliest traumatic memories. Whoever the unidentified wrestler is, it seems fair to say that Jacob finds in this moment a fitting and serendipitous channel for the intensive spiritual grappling that he needs.
Beyond the identity of Jacob’s adversary, the wrestling itself raises many questions as well. Wrestling, as it applies to Jacob’s new name, Israel—which literally means, “wrestles with God”—may represent many different forms of spiritual struggle, from challenging God’s words and works, and protesting against divine laws or the state of Creation, to debating the role of God and faith in one’s life in general. As far as our particular exploration is concerned, however, it is the underlying impulse and will to wrestle in the first place that calls for our attention. Israel and his eponymous nation, the Jewish people, are compelled to spar with God, to continually exercise, heal and refine the spirit through disciplined practice and commitment to living well with integrity.
Taken together, Jacob’s wrestling with his own internal demons and unresolved trauma, combined with the spiritual fortitude and inspiration that underpins it, leads us to the first of our parsha’s key insights into the relationship between creativity and morality. Jacob’s wrestling match reminds us not just how difficult it can be to do what is right and to create well—even when we recognize what it is we must do—but also that doing right and creating well are often most important when they are also hardest and most horrifying for us to follow through on.
In the context of our parsha, we know that Jacob feels extreme anxiety and crippling fear about meeting his brother Esau (Gen. 32:8). After living so many years that were predicated on his escape from Esau’s murderous wrath, Jacob must wonder—perhaps for the first time in his post-Esau life—about not only his own security, but that of his family and the very identity that he has developed since he and Esau were last together. Even if this meeting is not explicitly about repentance or forgiveness, the conciliatory messages that Jacob sends to Esau at the opening of our parsha carry all the subtext we need in order to feel the spiritual weight and sense of possibility and peril that lie on Jacob’s shoulders. He knows that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Beyond that, there is much uncertainty. Will he be killed? Will he be reduced to the boy he once was? Will God stay with him even now, as he comes to answer for his sins? Amidst these crushingly difficult questions still, Jacob knows what he must do.
By the time the mysterious wrestling match ensues, it is clear that the stakes are high for Jacob, and that he is resolved to move forward. Even in terms of his demand for a blessing from his unidentified adversary, Jacob’s commitment to conquering old wounds and fears is omnipresent; if he is to repent for taking Esau’s blessing twenty years earlier, then he must fight for one of his own now. In his perseverance and resilience as a wrestler (even to the point of only letting the fight end on his terms), Jacob appears to recognize that whatever happens with Esau, he will have to face his greatest fears—even just to show up. We can imagine him standing alone on that riverbank, recognizing the very real opportunity that he has once again to leave his family and escape—and then realizing that he cannot possibly allow himself to relive this old destructive pattern. If he truly wants to transcend his trauma and prove that he has moved beyond the baggage of his youth, he cannot run away from Esau again; he must literally make a new name for himself. In this way the unnamed wrestling partner is both a rival and a support system, aiding Jacob in the hard work that will allow him to face his brother the next morning.
Ultimately, Esau does not pose a threat to Jacob, but rather greets him with open arms. This trusting, respectful and loving ending to a conflict between brothers that has been rife with contempt and suspicion deserves an entire separate treatment of its own. But the most instructive implication of this situation for our purposes is that Jacob would likely never have experienced reconciliation with his brother if not for the mysterious wrestling match. The hip injury that he incurs in the night rules out the possibility that the wrestling was meant to train him for battle with Esau. But it was clearly an essential form of preparation, and even to the extent that it may have stimulated anger and aggression, it ultimately serves as a healing channel for venting those destructively anxious impulses. The wrestling is necessary for Jacob to overcome his inner urges to retreat and abandon the future that he knows is right. And even the hip injury will stay with him as a physical testament to the depth and drama of that overcoming.
This idea brings us back to the relationship between creativity and morality, because ultimately in Jacob’s situation the creative act and the moral act are the same. His meeting with Esau is both an important break from the past and a fundamentally just development in their relationship; to do what he has always done—to run from Esau and from his family—would be both a creative and moral failure. But Jacob’s wrestling allows him to do what is right and to be responsibly creative in ways that are more important, difficult and terrifying than ever before in his life.
He is prepared—with strength at his core—which sets him free, first of all, from the fear of failure that chokes creativity and morality at their inception. In wrestling to victory in our parsha, and thus symbolically correcting for the struggle he originally lost to Esau in the womb, Jacob conquers perhaps the deepest of all fears of what is both new and right: the trauma of being born. When the chips are down—when it really counts—he is able to rise to the occasion of making and doing right by his brother, and of being the patriarch he knows he is destined to be, because of the work that he does on himself in wrestling and becoming Israel.
Our focus since Parshat Toldot on Jacob’s deep and sometimes treacherous process of cultivating a vibrant and serious inner life has revealed both some of the worst, at first, and some of the best, in the end, of self-creation in the Torah. His example as a wrestler in our parsha becomes a foundational hallmark inspiration for the identity, character and value system of an entire people, Israel. And that is as it should be, because ultimately although Jacob is a prophet and a patriarch, what makes his example enlightening for us is that on a fundamental level we as average people can relate to his experience. Sometimes in life we must wrestle with our own humanity and spirituality, and struggle with matters both sacred and profane, in order to act with moral and creative integrity. Sometimes tradition takes the form of destructive patterns rather than virtuous practices, and in those cases both our morality and our creativity are at stake in the same moment. We must do something new in order to do what is right. And it is in that spirit that the tradition of the children of Israel begins.