November 18, 2021, Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospice, Jerusalem, Israel
(בראשית לב, כז) וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי
"And he said, release me for the morning has broken, and he (Jacob) said 'I will not release you until you have blessed me.'"(Bereshith, Genesis, Chapter 32, Verse 27)
Yaakov/Jacob encounters an unnamed, unidentified individual as he is about to cross the river and join the rest of his family on their way back home. This individual seems to appear out of nowhere, there is no explanation in the Biblical text as to who he is or how he got there or what his purpose is, but here he is and he engages Jacob in a wrestling match. The rabbis explain mystically that he is the guardian angel of Esau, Jacob's brother. And yet, that is not in the text. Whoever he is and Whatever he represents he is an obstacle that Jacob must overcome. Remember the Torah is a book of lessons, eternal lessons that are always relevant. There must be something in it for us.
Later on, after the struggle with this individual, it is written, "And Jacob called the name of the place Pni-El (The face of God), for 'I have seen God face to face and my life has been preserved." (Chapter 32, verse 31) So we see clearly that Jacob viewed this struggle with the unnamed individual as a Divine encounter. However you view it, Divine Angel or something else, it is clear that Jacob saw this as a struggle that he had go through.
One can encounter a problem in life and be annoyed, irritated, 'Why did this have to happen to me?', 'This is an obstacle that is delaying me', and feel bitter and frustrated. But Jacob understands that this is an encounter that had to happen, it was a test he had to pass. That is why he says, I have seen God face to face and I have survived. I.e. this was a fateful encounter, I needed it for my personal development. Yes, it was unexpected, yes, it was annoying, yes, it inconvenienced me but I now realize that this was a process I had go through. And then we read, "and as he passed over Pnu-El, the sun rose upon him" (Verse 32). This can mean that once he realized that this terrible inconvenience was for his own good, "the sun shone" i.e. good things came, he could see clearly, the clouds were gone. Once he appreciated the importance of the difficult encounter, the sun shone upon him. The verse stresses, upon HIM; of course the sun shone, it always does, but in this case it shone for Jacob individually as he realized the importance of this encounter and struggle. The verse concludes, "and he limped upon his thigh", yes, the sun shone and he fully understands the importance of this struggle, but he will still limp. We all bare our scares from our life struggles.
The struggle between Jacob and this unnamed individual, who refuses to divulge his name, is an essential part of the development of Israel as a nation, for it is here that Jacob, meaning 'the follower' becomes Israel meaning, 'He who has struggled with God and Man and has prevailed.' This is a fateful wrestling match.
I think it is important that we are not told the adversary's name. The adversary is our challenge and our challenge takes different names, different forms throughout our lives. I think the message is that this adversary, this obstacle, has no set name; for each of us in every generation will face this opponent. Each of us in every generation will have his own wrestling match that will help him mature into manhood, from the meek follower to the leader who can face any challenge, of Man or of God.
It is written "And Yaakov/Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the break of dawn."(Chapter 32, Verse 25) Each of us will be left alone at some point in life, each of us will have to face a serious obstacle, challenge, on our own. And the opponent was not able to overcome Jacob, and as dawn was breaking he asked Jacob to let him go.
The word used in Hebrew is Shalheni, and this is an enigmatic word. This word can mean, send me, or let me go, or release me. and the meanings are very different.
Today two thoughts came to me on this topic. The first: Life has many struggles, when the struggle is over the question is; what did we gain from it? Was it just a lot of hard work for nothing? Is there no reward?
We work a long day fixing roofs, or painting walls, it is a struggle, our body aches all over, but at the end there is a reward, we get paid. Jacob says, I will not release you until you have blessed me, i.e. I did not go through this struggle for nothing, I want something out of it. In this case the blessing is Jacob's reward for this all-night wrestling match with a fierce opponent.
The Lesson: Every struggle must have a reward, otherwise we have wasted our time. You have trained hard in Krav Maga, your reward is the ability to defend yourself and your loved ones. You have studied hard for four years; you will have earned an academic degree and valuable skills that will help you find a job. If you went through a difficult period in life, and you walk away angry and bitter, then this was a wasted experience. But if you went through a difficult period, serving in the military, fighting in a war, etc. and you walk away with life lessons, wisdom; than your experience was not wasted time and effort. Jacob wrestled with this unknown opponent from sometime in the night until the break of dawn, the man wants to leave but Jacob says No, I shall not let you go unless I get something out of this, I want a blessing, I want a life lesson.
Jacob's life lesson is to no longer be Akev, a heel, or a follower, instead he becomes Yisra-El, he who struggles with "God and Man and has prevailed" (Verse 29) This is the blessing of this struggle. We struggle, we overcome, and we are blessed with life lessons.
But there is more...
These ideas came to me while sitting in a hospice. Sadly, I am there because my dear mother is there. The fact that we are there has come as a shock to me and it has been very difficult to accept. A hospice is a ...last station in this life. Turnover is high. I meet members of other families, we become close quickly. and then they are gone, their loved one has departed. No one says anything but...they are no longer visiting, and then I notice the bed has been taken by a new guest. During quiet times I sit by my mother's bed and I read the Torah, and the Psalms, the words are a balm to my soul. Nothing else can relieve the heartache. Life lessons are eternal, my mother's lessons are always with me. I sit by her side and I chant.
And as I have written before on these pages, new lessons suddenly appear to me. I read the verse over and over again....Wayomer, Shalheni kee oloh HaShohar, Release me for morning has broken, and I feel it: Release me, I have struggled for so long, this has been such a long and difficult struggle, it hit me in the middle of the night, suddenly, unexpectedly, as I was preparing to do something else, a "man", unnamed and unknown, appeared out of nowhere and attacked me, and I have been struggling for so long...
doctors' appointments, chemotherapy, blood infusions, kidney problems, heart failure, more appointments, more pills, more consultations, ambulances, emergency rooms, such a long struggle, "and there wrestled a man with him, until the break of dawn." and then the words...release me...release me...for it has been a long struggle. But we hold on, we want a little more, please don't go yet, I need a blessing, I need something to keep me going for the future. "And Jacob said I shall not release you until you have blessed me", until you have assured me that my future will be alright, that I will manage...
Release me, for it has been a long struggle. After a long struggle we must be able to hear this cry, release me for the dawn has broken, a new day has dawned.
Jacob is injured in this struggle, "the hollow of Jacobs' thigh was put out of joint" (Verse 26) and when Jacob continues on his path "he limped upon his thigh"(Chapter 32, Verse 32) and therefore a new law came into effect for the Nation of Israel, "Therefore the Children of Israel eat not of the sinew of the vein, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, to this day, because he touched the hollow of Yaakovs' (Jacobs') thigh in the sinew of the vein."(Chapter 32, Verse 33)
Jacob releases "the man", the opponent, for a new day has dawned, but Jacob remains crippled, with every step he will remember this struggle. There is a pain that will never go away. As my old Judo instructor told me many years ago, "from every fight I have a souvenir, a body part that hurts".
May we have the strength to let go, to release, when the time has come, and may we have the strength to go on, though we will always limp from now on.