Wrestling with our Demons

Genesis Ch. 32 contains the well-known story of Jacob’s night of wrestling the angel in advance of his reunion with his brother Esau. They have not seen each other since Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and ran away to save himself from Esau’s potential revenge.

It is tempting to use the story as a lesson about how two nations need to reconcile with one another. In our current, American moment, the story has some lessons about what it means to live in a divided country, when two factions see the world totally differently.  

This article appeared in the Times of Israel on December 6, 2020.  A version of this article was delivered as a dvar torah at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD). 

But instead, I want to look at the story in a more personal way. The literal reading of the text has us imagine that Jacob wrestled with a Divine Being, either an angel or God. Even though I prefer more allegorical readings of the Biblical text to explore deeper levels of meaning, even when taking the story literally, there is much for us to learn about human nature and ourselves.

Jacob stands at a crossroad in his life. The incident takes place at maavar Yabok, the fjord of the Yabok river, a tributary of the Jordan River, about 30 miles north of the Dead Sea. But Yabok may be a pun on the name Yaakov, and maavar can mean “passageway” or “transition” in which case maavar Yabok might mean: “Jacob at the crossroads of his life”! Jacob believes that he is destined to be the father of a great nation. This is a legacy passed down from his grandfather, Abraham, to his father, Isaac, and now to him. Yet, not unlike many individuals aspiring to greatness, Jacob wrestles with self-doubt. “Am I worthy?” He wonders if he is the legitimate heir to God’s promise to Abraham. Perhaps Esau was the rightful heir?

In the 1970’s, there was a commercial that ran on TV for Chiffon margarine. Suggesting that the margarine tasted virtually the same as butter, the punch line was: “It is not nice to fool Mother Nature”. Jacob’s memory of how he deceived his father to get Esau’s birthright likely haunted him ever since. Think: “It is not nice to fool the Master of the Universe”.

With this as backdrop, Jacob’s supernatural adversary—be it an angel or God– the night before his reunion with Esau, is a message to Jacob that he cannot fulfill his destiny without coming to terms with his “original sin”. His adversary confronts him to convey: You must take responsibility for the deception of your brother. You must find a way to own your subterfuge and reconcile with Esau.

In this version of the story, the adversary’s renaming of Jacob takes on great meaning. He goes from Yaakov, “the heel,” to Yisrael, “the one who wrestled with God” or, if you will allow, “the one who confronted an unpleasant truth that revealed something about his own dark side which he much overcome in order to be the father of a great nation”.

If we reject the literal version of the story and imagine that the struggle was a dream sequence—we know that Jacob is big on dreams—there is even more insight to be gained. One possibility, not at all far-fetched, is that the night before Jacob is to have his first encounter with his older, and physically stronger, brother, Esau, Jacob dreams that he is in a wrestling match with him. The wrestling match re-visits a struggle between twin brothers that started in the womb of Rebecca. Even in utero, Jacob tried to usurp his brother’s status as first born by grabbing his ankle so as to emerge first. Because he failed, he must trick Esau to win the coveted birthright of the firstborn from his father.

Jacob realizes that he falls into a trap that is so common to human nature. We believe that love is finite. We believe that life is a zero-sum game where a handful are “winners” and everyone else is a “loser”. Jacob’s mother and father help to perpetuate that insidious view of the world. It seems that Isaac has only one birthright blessing to confer, to the eventual horror of Esau, who comes to his father’s tent after the blessing has already been given to Jacob. And Rebecca, knowing that only one birthright will be conferred, conspires to have Jacob arrive first, posing as Esau. Jacob “wins” the birthright, but he pays a price in feelings of guilt for the rest of his life.

The dream is a chance at a reboot, a reset. This time, Jacob does not try to pull his brother back, as he attempted to do in the womb. Nor does he dress up like Esau to trick an aging and failing Isaac into getting the blessing of the first born.  In the dream, there is conflict between the brothers. As twins, they will compete for the love of their parents. They will always be compared to each other. As much as they may want to celebrate the success of the other, they will wrestle with the jealousy that their twins’ success will engender. And so, in the dream, they wrestle. But they do so face to face. Genesis 32:31 has Jacob say: ki raiti Elohim panim el panim vatinatzel, “I have seen a divine Being face to face and I prevailed”. My, more midrashic translation, would be: “I have confronted a hard truth about myself and my treachery, face to face, and am a better person for it.”

The conflict between Jacob and Esau is real and it will not go away. But it can be handled with more honesty and more compassion than happened when they were immature children. Most poignantly, in the dream, with the arrival of dawn, Jacob asks his adversary, Esau, to give him a blessing before he takes his leave. The blessing will not be stolen; it will be freely given by Esau, who will not begrudge his brother his aspiration to father a great nation. With age, they have known love and loss and they have matured. The next morning, Jacob will meet Esau, ready to ask forgiveness for what he did to him at their father’s knee. And they will reconcile, making it possible for Jacob, now named Yisrael, to fulfill his destiny.

There is yet a third version of the story that I want to suggest. This too, sees the story as a dream sequence. But the adversary is neither a Divine Being nor his brother, Esau. It is Jacob’s shadow self. Jacob is literally, wrestling with his own demons. All of the elements from the prior two interpretations are still in play. Jacob is anxious about his reunion with his brother. He has been haunted by his youthful deception of Esau. He suffers from feelings of self-loathing. He does not want his legacy to be “my Dad, the trickster”. Abraham and Isaac would expect better.

The dream of a wrestling match is an apt metaphor. In our consciousness, we are torn between our yetzer ha-ra and our yetzer tov, our evil inclination and our good inclination. Our evil inclination tells us: Don’t be a sucker.  You know what it takes to get ahead. What is a small little lie in the larger scheme of things? The ends justify the means. And our good inclination tells us: Do the right thing. Goodness is its own reward. You need to be able to look in the mirror and know that you have lived a life of integrity. Don’t sell your soul for a bowl of porridge.

This is the human condition. And, as we have come to realize of late, to our horror, goodness does not always prevail.

Except for Jacob, it does. Once he confronts his own demons in his dream, he knows how he has fallen short. And he knows how he must make things right with his twin brother, Esau. The text tells us that when dawn comes, Jacob has survived the night of travail. The wrestling match was not a physical one. It was a psychological one, and as such, far more significant for the person Jacob will become. This version yields yet another way to understand the verse: (Genesis 32:31): ki raiti Elohim panim el panim vatinatzel, “I have seen a divine Being face to face and I prevailed”. I would translate it as: “I have come to realize how strong is my yetzer ha-ra, my evil inclination. If I want to be worthy of the name Yisrael, Israel, I must find a way to keep it in check.” In this version, va-tinatzel is not, “he prevailed” but rather, “this is what it takes to be a spiritually mature person”.

The Biblical text tells us (32:33) that at the end of the night of wrestling, Jacob survives but is left with a wounded hip socket. He will now, forever, walk with a limp. Past misdeeds are never erased; at best, we confront them and learn from those mistakes. The scars left by those misdeeds become markers of our spiritual growth. When Jacob approaches Esau the next morning to reconcile, gone is the arrogance of his youth. His deep remorse is visible from across the field as he limps towards his twin brother. The physical wound represents Jacob’s ability to own his act of deception and the possibility, that his success, might have been built on a lie.

In a spiritually mature world, the ability to own the misdeeds of our past is a sign of moral courage and strength. The ability to repent and to ask forgiveness for our sins opens the possibility for severed relationships to be healed. We need to know this truth deep in our hearts because we live at a time when public figures weave elaborate webs of lies and social media provides the platform that allows those lies to be taken as truth. We need to know better.

Did Jacob wrestle with an angel? With Esau? With himself? Yes. All of the above. And it doesn’t matter. Because in each version he learns something about himself that allows him to be worthy of the name Israel-the one who wrestled with God. The one who wrestled with hard truths.

The next morning, Jacob limps to meet his brother. And by showing that vulnerability, Jacob and Esau are able to embrace, repair their estrangement and respect one another, even as they take different life paths.

A morality tale for us all.