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

We can survive struggles with our inner demons, just like Jacob

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

Genesis 32:4–36:43

When the Torah portion Vayishlach begins, the patriarch Jacob is fleeing for his life from his brother, Esau, from whom he has stolen both his birthright and the blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob is terrified of Esau’s vengeance. He knows that he has done a grievous wrong to his twin and rival.

Jacob struggles in his soul with what he has done to Esau. This struggle is personified in important and symbolic ways through a scene in which Jacob wrestles with a “man” in the Yabbok River in the middle of the night. But who is this man?

Clearly, the patriarch is grappling with inner demons and within internal, narrow straits that seem to have imprisoned him with powerful emotions. In a sense, he is confined by them. Is the “man” in the river Jacob’s own fear? Does the figure represent an expression of the patriarch’s moral conscience? Or is it, as some commentators have suggested, Esau’s guardian angel?

In the end, at daybreak, Jacob survives the encounter with the shadowy, mysterious man in the river. And the man rewards him by blessing him and changing his name from Jacob to Yisrael, for “you have striven with God and with men and prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

It can take struggle and a sense of confinement to make us experience transformation, submersion into dark waters before we can rise again. Imprisonment and descent, whether physical or existential, have sometimes been the sites of spiritual epiphanies, the contexts from which our souls are redeemed.

Take the case of the prophet Jonah, who we read about on Yom Kippur. Called by God to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh for its sins, Jonah flees instead to the port of Jaffa, then boards a ship for Tarshish.

From the initial verses of the biblical story, as the burden of prophecy hangs over him like a colossal weight, Jonah enters a world of spiritual darkness. He doesn’t just run from his responsibility. He descends.

The Bible says that Jonah “went down” (va-yeired in Hebrew) to Jaffa, “went down” into the hold of the ship, went down into the sea, and descended still further into the belly of a great sea monster. The repetition of the words and images isn’t accidental. It is meant to convey the prophet’s spiritual fall.

Jonah’s descent into the heart of darkness leads to his metaphorical death, a death that nearly becomes physical. All of his weaknesses, limitations, failures and fears collapse in on him, threaten to crush his soul and condemn him to a living hell.

Yet death — or those forces that thwart and immobilize his life — becomes the reality he must confront before he can transform his soul, before he finds the strength and courage to heed his call and fulfill his mission. His entombment, which is ultimately self-constructed and a mirror of the state of his soul, is the grim and painful truth he must confront before new life is possible.

The story of Jonah is ultimately a story of triumph. In the belly of the beast, Jonah transforms, survives and completes his mission. Unlike Jacob, his name doesn’t change, but he too becomes a model of hope and resilience that the rest of us can try to emulate.

There is a kabbalistic concept called yeridah lifney ha-aliyah, “descent before ascent.” For the mystics, a journey into the abyss is a sacred rite of passage, the furnace through which our destinies are forged. Descent is a necessary, but not sufficient, experience in the life of a seeking, sensitive person.

It does not have to be as dramatic as that of Jacob or Jonah, but it usually has a concrete context. In the biblical context, Egypt (mitzraim in Hebrew) serves as a metaphor for that descent, and some of the Bible’s greatest heroes pass through it, all by divine design.

A famine drives Abraham there but also sets into motion the birth of a people. Joseph, having been thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers, is taken there by Midianite traders, where he later becomes a key figure in the royal court and the savior of his family. And as we know from the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” the future leader and liberator of the Israelite nation, the only human being to know God face to face and survive, has to initially descend “way down to Egypt land.”

To make this message applicable to our own inner struggles and journeys, we must reread mitzraim not as the historical Egypt but as metzarim, the straits of spiritual imprisonment. Whether we are terrified of death, in the throes of a depression or paralyzed by an addiction, life can sometimes feel like a cage from which there is no escape.

But we all fall down. Descent is only the preparation for the ascent. Abraham leaves Egypt for the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and Moses leaves it for the wilderness of Sinai, the place of the eternal covenant between God and Israel. Even Joseph, who lives out his life in Egyptian exile, has his bones gathered and “taken up” with the Israelites during their exodus from the land of bondage.

For them and for us, beyond the crucible of spiritual darkness is the light of inner redemption. If we believe that a descent into the abyss will not last forever and can ultimately make us stronger, we will outlive these nightmares.

The challenge is to brave our dark nights and wait for the dawn.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."