The Angel – Comments on Torah Portion Va-Yishlach 2023
In our Torah portion, Va-Yishlach, we have one of the most dramatic and vivid scenes in the Bible – Jacob wrestling with an angel. Except, in our Torah portion, it is never written that Jacob wrestled with an angel. The image that Jacob wrestled with an angel comes from Hosea 12:5, not the narrative contained in Genesis 32. Here is what it says in Hosea:
He struggled with an angel and (Jacob) prevailed over him; he (the angel) cried and implored of him (Jacob). He (Jacob) found him (the Angel) at Beit El, and he (Jacob) spoke with him (the Angel) there.
It is clear that Hosea knew of the story in Genesis.
What does it say in our Torah portion about Jacob in the wrestling match?
First, the set up. Jacob has been gone from Canaan for 20 years. He left Canaan in fear, after tricking his father Isaac in order to appropriate the birthright from his brother Esau. After being cheated out of the birthright blessing, Esau announced his intention to kill Jacob once Isaac passed away.
Jacob was stuck. None of this was his idea. It was Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, who had instigated this plan at the implied behest of God. Certainly, Jacob had the blessing of his mother. Eventually, Jacob received the birthright blessing from his father, Isaac. Affirming Rebecca’s plan, God blessed Jacob in the dream of the ladder connecting heaven and earth. The blessings of Rebecca, Isaac, and God aside, Jacob fears that Esau still resents him and will fulfill his intention to kill him on sight, announced 20 years earlier. Resentment sometimes only deepens with time. The idea that Esau would bless him was probably beyond his imagination.
Twenty years passed and Jacob returned to Canaan. He arrived at the border ready for a fight but hoping for a truce. He ferried his family across the river Yabok, but suddenly found himself alone. The story picks up here – it is worth citing fully:
Jacob was left, alone. An “ish” (unidentified person) wrestled with him until the dawn arose. And he saw that he could not overcome him, and he struck the socket of his thigh, and the socket of Jacob’s thigh was strained from his wrestling with him. And he said, “Let me go, for dawn has broken!” And he said, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.”
And he said, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” And he said, “Jacob will no longer be your name, but rather Yis’ra’el, “ki sarita im Elohim ve’im anashing, va-tuchal” _ “for you have striven with beings divine and mortal, and you have prevailed.”
And Jacob asked, saying, “Please, tell me your name!” And he said, “Why would you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there.
And Jacob called the name of that place, “Peni-el” (The Face of God), for I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved. And the sun rose upon him as he passed Penu-el, and he was limping on his hip.
Who was the “ish,” “a man,” the unidentified person? In my reading of this text, the person that Jacob wrestled with was his brother Esau, not an angel. Why would Esau attack him in the middle of the night, wrestle with Jacob, lose the match, and then bless Jacob with a new name?
In my mind, Esau knew that Jacob had the blessing of his mother, his father, and of God, but not his, Esau’s blessing, the Esau whom Jacob had wronged. Jacob had gained the blessing of the birthright through trickery. Esau now gives Jacob the gift of fighting for the blessing, fair and square, hand to hand combat. No masking, no chicanery. Straight up. “You want this blessing – you’ll have to fight for it.” Esau gives Jacob a chance to redeem himself.
Jacob prevails over Esau, and Esau changes Jacob’s name. Esau says that Jacob is no longer the Usurper/Trickster (the meaning of the name Jacob; see Genesis 27:35-36). Esau, who labeled his brother The Deceiver, now grants his brother the name Yis’ra’el – “the one who struggles with beings divine and mortal” and who prevails.
Only Esau could change Jacob’s name. In doing so, Esau helps Jacob escape his stained identity, his shame wound. Esau facilitates Jacob’s birth into a new being. Esau blesses Jacob with the blessing that Jacob needed most, and only Esau could grant that blessing. In changing Jacob’s name, Esau is also saying that Jacob has changed his nature. Jacob’s nature was no longer the trickster, he was now The God-wrestler.
Only Esau could grant that moment, that moment of external validation of an inner change. A conversion experience, if you will. Not to a new religion, but to the birth of a new self. At that moment, Jacob saw God face to face, the God who is present at a moment of radical transformation. God’s presence was channeled through the gracious, forgiving, and wise actions of Esau.
“What is your name?” Jacob asked, just as Jacob’s father Isaac had wondered who it was that was seeking his blessing, 20 years earlier. Perhaps, Jacob thought, his opponent was hiding his identity, just as Jacob hid his identity from his father.
Esau says, “Why would you ask my name?” As with most “why” questions, it was not a question, it was a subtle rebuke. I imagine Esau, who had somehow masked himself, thinking, “My name is not the question at hand. Your name is. Let’s focus on one thing at a time.”
He is really Esau – the brother whom he had wronged, and who has now forgiven him.
Who was Esau? Esau was the brother rejected by God, as Cain had been rejected by God. In rage, Cain killed his brother Abel, proclaiming he was not the guardian of his brother. Esau, however, does not kill his brother, the one favored by God. Esau is in essence saying, “I am, indeed, my brother’s keeper.” “Even though God has not favored me, I am nevertheless by brother’s keeper.” Esau, however, goes much further than overcoming his anger and not killing his brother.
Esau re-entered Jacob’s life at a turning point. In my reading of this text, Jacob had been fearing feared this moment for 20 years. Jacob had been having nightmares about this confrontation the whole time. Jacob is wracked by guilt and shame. Yes, his mother, father, and God had approved of Jacob’s getting of the birthright through trickery, but Jacob bore the moral burden. Only Esau could lift it.
Esau lifted that burden. The wrestling between the brothers that began in the womb has finally ceased. Jacob was no longer grasping at his brother’s heel. Jacob has prevailed – over capricious fate that had Jacob become a usurper. And Jacob prevailed over his brother in a wrestling match, fair and square. Jacob has been redeemed. “I’ve seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved.” Esau, in a moment into which the divine presence has been channeled, has saved Jacob’s soul. (In my reading, Esau threw the fight, once Jacob had proven that he was willing to fight for the blessing.)
I see I have made a mistake. I now believe that Esau, the singular agent of another’s redemption, actually was an angel, a human being on a mission from God.
In my reading, Esau’s identity had also changed. He was no longer the hunter. Esau was now the man of the tents, studying God’s ways.
Each of us is Jacob, yearning for transformation. Each of can be Esau, leading another person to a moment of transformation. Each of us can be Rebecca, guiding another person toward overcoming anger, resentment, and grudges, and allowing new life to be born.
As I have said many times, his teacher, the agent of his transformation, was Rebecca, now a professor at the mythical Beit Midrash of Shem and Eber (specializing in Leviticus 19:17-18). And as I have also said many times, the teaching that transformed Esau is recorded in the yet to be written Midrash of Rebecca, which I hope to write, if an angel gives me the blessing to do so.