Jacob returns to Canaan, where 20 years earlier he fled his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing his birthright. But time does not seem to have healed the wound. Esau comes to greet him with 400 men, an army. Apparently, he will fulfill his 20-year-old intention to kill Jacob.
Frightened for his life and the life of his family, Jacob sends seven sets of gifts to mollify Esau and prays to God for help. Camped on the Jabbok River, he divides his household so that some might survive the expected attack.
Sensing that the danger is already upon him, he moves his family across the Jabbok in the dead of night. Left alone on the far bank, Jacob is suddenly accosted by the mysterious ish, the “man” who Jacob will later refer to by saying, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:31).
Jacob and the ish wrestle through the night. The man wrenches his hip, but Jacob forces the ish to bless him with a new name. Jacob becomes Israel, the God-wrestler.
What was Jacob doing alone on the bank of the Jabbok River? According to the commentators, Jacob was either making sure that nothing was left behind or acting like the captain of a ship, the last one to depart after the others are safe. I still remember that random day in the yeshiva when I read the dissenting opinion of the 12th century rabbi and grandson of Rashi, Shmuel ben Meir, the Rashbam: “Jacob was left alone … in order to flee a different route where he intended to avoid Esau. And a man (ish) wrestled with him so that he would not be able to flee …”
What? Jacob, the father of our people, was preparing to abandon his family and run? Is that possible? Unfortunately, it makes sense. Jacob fled twice before — once from Esau and once from Laban. He never stands his ground.
In the apt words of Avivah Zornberg, Jacob is a “rear admiral.” Biblical names in Genesis refer to the essence of the person they describe. Jacob, Ya’akov in Hebrew, means “he will circumvent.” One step forward, two to the side. Jacob cleverly maneuvers to avoid the battles he would likely lose. He cleverly manipulates the world around him to acquire status and wealth.
But all this ends on that fateful night. The gifts, the prayers, the strategic placement of his household — it all comes to naught as Esau’s army approaches. Jacob thinks he is about to die, so he tries one last maneuver. He moves his family south across the Jabbok River, placing them between himself and Esau, who rides from Edom (below the Dead Sea). Why? Because he is preparing to run north, back from where he came. At this precise moment the ish attacks.
The stories in the book of Genesis are famously terse. Every detail is there for a reason; every word counts. Running again, Jacob? Not this time. The ish goes for the hip. Jacob never runs again. The Rashbam surely gets it right.
What is the purpose of this strange wrestling match?
Jacob is in the very situation he has tried to avoid his entire life. He is defenseless before the superior force of his brother and, presumably, the ish. Could a divine being not defeat Jacob? But like a big brother, (indeed, some suggest the ish is Esau himself), the ish gives Jacob just the right amount of fight to let him find his strength and his courage.
Jacob doesn’t need another clever idea. He needs to find his inner strength and resolve. This is a story about male spirituality, one that many women will find compelling as well. Jacob comes into his own when he learns that he can fight.
The Hebrew word used to describe Jacob’s success against the ish, vatoochal (Genesis 32:29), is usually rendered as “prevailed.” The literal translation: “You are able.” The ish gives Jacob the fight he needs to discover his own abilities.
Then he gives Jacob the name that will define the essence of the Jewish People. Yisrael, God-wrestler. Another interpretation: read the same letters with different vowels and you get Yashar-El, “the straight one of God.” The circumventer has become the straight one: the honest, the able — the authentic — man of God.
The next morning, Jacob starts out as Ya’akov. When Esau approaches with his army, Jacob again puts his family in harm’s way, between himself and Esau. The rear admiral, once again. But then, Yashar-El takes over. “He himself went on ahead” (Genesis 33:3). Jacob takes his stand between his family and his brother.
The conflict with Esau ends here and now. Defenseless, with courage and resolve, straight as an arrow, Jacob limps toward his brother.
Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org) and the author of “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” and “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, makingprayerreal.com).