Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
My favorite Torah story when I work with people facing the uncertainty of a grave illness or death is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. (Genesis 32.) Jacob’s facing mortality was not due to illness. He was worried that his brother Esau might be planning to murder him in revenge for Jacob’s stealing the birthright and blessing from their father. Jacob had fled Esau by the urging of his mother. He had to leave, alone, and now, returning home, so many years later with four wives, 13 children, flocks and herds, Jacob’s messengers tell him that Esau is headed his way with 400 men. “And Jacob was ‘sore afraid.’” v. 8. What happens next can give us a framework to understand how to negotiate close encounters with death.
After making a plan to enhance the security of his family, more or less:
1. Jacob prays. Many years before, when he had an awesome dream experience, he also prayed with a youthful chutzpah in the form of an oath. (Gen 28:20-22) Back then, he was very tentative in his faith: “If God will be with me…and guard me and give me food to eat and clothes to wear and return me safely to my father’s house and be a God for me…. then I will tithe…etc.” This time (32:10) Jacob begins with profound gratitude for the wealth of family and flock, and then begs God to rescue him and his family, and reminds God of the patriarchal blessing, that his offspring will be as the sand of the sea, so numerous it cannot be counted.
2. Jacob, now isolated, goes to sleep by the river Yavvok [Jabbok]. The quest to find the meaning in one’s very unique life is something that must be done alone. And Jacob wrestles with a ‘man.’ whether this scene is describing a happening or an inner psychic experience, it is not a restful night. All night Jacob wrestles, and does not let the ‘man’ go. As dawn breaks, the ‘man’ injures Jacob in his hip socket, and demands to be let go “for dawn has broken.” It is rather like our nightmarish fears that wish to scurry and hide away again with the morning light.
3. But Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” which we can read as “I demand something from all this tsuris!” It is at this point that the ‘man’ changes Jacob’s name—that is, he articulates the inner change that has occurred in Jacob through this facing of his fears, and wrestling with them. And what a name change! The (now we know) angel changes his name from “One who takes what is not his by grasping a heel,” to “One who struggles with both God and men and overcomes.”
4. Jacob wants to know the name of the angel. If only we could summon this angel by name when we need him! But humans are not allowed the privilege of knowing angels’ names. To commemorate this life changing event, Jacob names the place where it happened: “The face of God,” for, he claims, “I have seen God face to face, yet my soul was rescued (from death).”
5. Morning breaks, and Jacob limps away. He is injured. He does not come through physically whole, the way he was before his terrifying experience. Nevertheless, he fought his fears to the mat, and he wrested a blessing from this encounter: seeing God face to face.
This is a model for us: If we can face our fear of mortality, wrestle with it, alone, we may not return to our previous physical wellness, but we might be able find some blessing, some glimpse of The Great Mystery, that will call us by a new name, and tell us we have prevailed.
Me’irah Iliinsky is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as an artist. She works as a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in the San Francisco Bay region and teaches Torah at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Her artwork can be viewed at
UPCOMING GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 am PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th at 12-1:30 pm EST, and a second orientation session on Monday, January 4th at 8-9:30 pm EST (Students may attend either one). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.
This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy, and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course also looks at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Studies include: spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.
NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can receive a 20% discount. There are clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.
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TOPIC RELATED EVENTS (Not sponosored by Kavod v’Nichum):
A Jewish Renewal Shabbaton with Reb Simcha Raphael
From Darkness to Light – Kabbalah and Practical Wisdom for End-of-Life Transitions
Rosh Hodesh Hanukah December 11-13, 2015
Sanctuary Retreat and Renewal Center
Darnestown Road Beallsville, Maryland 19520
Through study and story-telling, prayer, and meditation we shall explore the richness of Midrashic, Hasidic and Kabbalistic teachings dealing with the finality of life, journey of the soul after death and personal and communal responses to grief and to loss.
* Transforming Darkness Into Light: Death, Destiny and the Calling of Our Lives”
* “Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night”: Moses’ Death in Torah and Midrash – Contemporary Reflections”
* Afterlife and Near-Death Experiences in Kabbalah – Practical Wisdom for End-of-Life Transition and Bereavement Care
* End-of-Life Wisdom and Soul-Guiding in Hasidic Deathbed Stories
* Contemplative and Joyous Renewal Davennen’
Full Program with Friday & Saturday night Lodging & 5 meals: $ 270 Early Bird ($300 after Nov 23rd) Commuter – Full Program with meals: $195 Early Bird ($225 after Nov 23rd)
Commuter – All Day Saturday (Lunch/Dinner): $165 Early Bird ($195 after Nov 23rd) Discounts (Cannot be combined) – 15% AK Full members Code FULL
10% – AK Assoc members Code ASSOC; Couples (same household) – Full weekend only Code COUPLE
10% – People attending from outside the DC/Baltimore Metro area Code OOT
Register and pay online at 301-349-2799
Lodging is limited.
Reb Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the DA’AT INSTITUTE for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training. Ordained as a Rabbinic Pastor by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, he teaches Jewish Mysticism at Temple University, works as a psychotherapist and spiritual director in Philadelphia, is a Fellow of the Rabbis Without Borders Network and is author of numerous publications including the ground-breaking Jewish Views of the Afterlife. His website is