"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" Gustave Doré, 1855
"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" Gustave Doré, 1855

Are you like Jacob — wrestling to understand things?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 32:4-36:43

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains one of the most famous moments in the development of our people.

Jacob wrestles with a man and proves himself to be a strong and unrelenting warrior. Our ancestor holds on for dear life, even when the man touches Jacob’s hip socket, dislocating his leg.

It turns out that the man who is wrestling with Jacob isn’t merely a mortal man, but an angel. The angel rewards Jacob for his tenacity by telling him that he will receive a new name, Yisrael, meaning “one who wrestles with God.”

It is the name by which we are identified.

We often think of this story as a triumphant one. After all, Jacob comes out of it with a new name which promises an ongoing relationship with God.

However, on closer inspection, this is, in many ways, an uncomfortable story to read.

The dreamlike state that Jacob is in reflects his exhaustion — physical and emotional. Two parashahs ago, Jacob stole the birthright from his brother, Esau. And since then, he has been on the run, trying to escape from his outraged and deceived twin brother. Perhaps Jacob is tortured by what he’s done, by the deception and dishonesty that split his family apart …?

This week, we encounter Jacob, just as he prepares to lie down in his camp to sleep for the night: Hu lan balaila hahu bamachaneh. But in the very next verse, Jacob wakes up — in the middle of the night — and moves his entire party, including his two wives, two maidservants and 11 children.

Now … I have only two children, but I know how hard it is to get them organized and out the door! So I can imagine what it took to move a family of 11 children! And why in the middle of the night?!

Apparently, this move cannot wait until morning. Jacob’s demons pursue him wherever he is. And in the middle of the night, our tortured ancestor and his large family “crossed the Jabbok river.” A guy who could rest at night would not have been engaging in this enormous — and dangerous — journey (before the advent of headlamps) if it could have been avoided.

But the plot thickens.

After this dramatic and exhausting trek across the river, Jacob is described as being “left alone.” How could that have been? Two wives, two maidservants and 11 children, plus household goods, animals, etc. would not have crossed a river quietly and easily. Nor would they have set up camp quickly on the other side. They’d be soaked and scared and wide awake.

I imagine there would have been total chaos.

But the Torah says that Jacob was “left alone” … just Jacob and his conscience.

It was in that time and place of total solitude that Jacob wrestled. Was it with a man? An angel? Himself? What if, late at night (when we all imagine things) Jacob, too, imagined a wrestling match? Maybe his opponent was his conscience or morality or God …?

It seems an ironic but important end to the wrestling match that Jacob’s opponent blesses him. Perhaps Jacob needed a blessing to assuage his guilt or to begin his own teshuvah.

When I read this story this year, it feels a bit different. Maybe as this pandemic has dragged on, I’ve felt the absence of anxiety-free sleep take its toll on me. I recognize how tumultuous anxious nights can feel. Like Jacob, I find myself waking up sometimes, unsure where reality and imagination begin and end. Stress manifests itself in many ways — including physical pain, anxiety, sleeplessness. Jacob seemed to have all of those markers.

Over thousands of years, the Torah has held up a mirror to humanity, showing us that human behavior hasn’t changed much.

Like Jacob, we, too, continue to wrestle to understand the world and our place in it. And we try to make choices that allow us a good night’s sleep.

Jacob’s wrestling wasn’t in vain. It allowed him to become Yisrael — the patriarch of the people of Israel.

Wrestling is about engagement with one’s own core.

This story reminds us of the sacred work of engaging with ourselves and others. And, ultimately, with the choices that we make as we travel on our own journeys.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.