It was billed as the “Match of the Millennium”, the contestants eager for battle, well, at least one of them was. In one corner, hailing from Eretz Canaan, but lately from Haran, Yaakov, on his way back to his home, and in the other corner, a man – a man, an adversary, an angel(?): “And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn.” (Genesis 32:25)
Who was it who wrestled with Yaakov? This question is taken up in a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah (77:2 – adapted) which plays out like a cross between a “professional wrestling match” and a “super hero” movie: “And the sages said: ‘The angel appeared to Yaakov in the guise of an archvillain. Both Yaakov and the angel had herds of sheep and camels. The angel said to Yaakov: You bring my things across the river and I will take your things. In the blink of an eye, the angel had transferred Jacob’s possessions across the river, but, Yaakov, every time he brought the angels things from one side of the river to the other, it was as if more things appeared to be moved. Yaakov toiled all night long, back and forth, back and forth. Pretty soon Yaakov realized something was awry and shouted out: Sorcerer (pharmakos) and the two began to wrestle. Jacob took a rag and stuffed it in his opponent’s mouth, fearing his opponent would conjure up trouble. The angel, in turn, decided to show Yaakov who he was really dealing with, thrusting a finger into the ground causing lava to spewed forth. Yaakov then burst forth, saying: ‘You don’t scare me for I am made entirely of fire’, as it is written: ‘And the house of Yaakov was fire.’ (Obadiah 1:18)”
What underlies this wild story? Much has been said about the rabbinic identification of this angel with Esau (Edom) and, in turn, with Rome, both politically and culturally. Yaakov, representing the Jewish nation and Judaism, was at war with Rome and Esau was taken to be the coded stand-in for the enemy who could not be identified explicitly. This midrash offered a cathartic way of expressing an oppressed nation’s wishes to overcome its oppressor. Yaakov may have come out of the wrestling match scathed but he was not defeated.
One can read something even deeper into this anecdote. The battle with “Rome” was not just an external battle. Rome represented a culture which was both alien and intimate to the Jew. Judaism was one’s “deep” identity and Rome represented the broader cultural milieu. Jews, like other minority peoples, were in a constant struggle – a wrestling match over how to find the correct balance in determining who they were, how they would live and how they self-identified. This was not an easy struggle. It is not easy having a minority identity in a majority culture and preserving that identity. It is no wonder Yaakov out of the struggle injured!
Yaakov’s battle with this “angel” is an ongoing Jewish struggle, no less difficult today than in the past. Coming out of this encounter successfully, unscathed and intact, is not certain. Still, since it is an unavoidable part of Jewish life, Jacob’s story bids us to be prepared for the encounter.