Torah Gemstones – V’yishlach (And he sent out) Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
The legacy of Jacob that we are most familiar with is his twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel and, ultimately, represented the whole nation. What we fail to recognize is Jacob's life struggle to gain the inheritance that God promised to those tribes.
Jacob’s life is fraught with struggle, mostly against an enemy of one kind or another. The enemy continually put roadblocks in his path; sometimes he was even his own worst enemy. Jacob had to fight for the firstborn position, for the blessings that accompanied that birthright, for his bride of promise, Rachel, and finally for the land of Israel itself. At first he fought unsuccessfully with Esav in the womb for the firstborn status. Then he fought again with Esav for the inheritance of the birthright. He clashed with Laban for his bride of promise, and finally he struggled with an unnamed adversary for the land of Israel.
His life reflects the struggle against an eternal enemy who continually attacks the sons of Israel, those past and those yet to be born. Jacob never gave up though, and continued to fight the good fight for the sake of his progeny. His final struggle was for the future ingathering of all the tribes. The first ingathering had been in Egypt where Joseph declared, "God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance" (Gen 45:7). The final ingathering would be in the land of Israel.
In the Torah portion Ha’azinu (Deut 32), Scripture tells us Jacob’s family is God’s inheritance. “For Adonai’s portion is His people; Jacob is the measure of his inheritance.” Measure (חבל) means a rope, or binding something by wrapping it with a rope. Ropes were used to measure a plot of land and so the rope became synonymous with the physical inheritance of the tribes. In addition, because a rope with its many twisted strands is stronger than an individual strand, the sages say it was Jacob who was described as God’s rope because he represented the combined strengths of Abraham and Isaac. It was Jacob, therefore, who had the strength to contend for the inheritance for his children against an eternal enemy.
The fight over that inheritance, when Jacob wrestled with "a man," is the epic battle against an unnamed adversary. Rabbinic opinion struggles to understand the passage. Some suggest the adversary was HaSatan, some the guardian angel of Esav, still others declare it was an agent of God. In any case, this battle unfolds under the cover of darkness with this unnamed adversary over whom Jacob ultimately prevailed. And this account is written in a way that seems to be purposefully ambiguous. As a result, there are many interpretations and scholars rarely agree on the meaning of this narrative.
One of the mysteries in the interpretation is caused by the repeated use of the pronoun “he,” which makes it difficult to determine who is wrestling with whom. However, even though this account is rather a brief episode in the life of Jacob, it remains one of the most important events.
Jacob left the clutches of Laban, his father-in-law, and came to the ford of the Jabbock River. The Hebrew indicates he first took his family safely across and then made a second trip with all his possessions. After doing this he returned to the original side. Jabbock (יבק) is actually a play on similar letters for the word wrestled (אבק). Both words mean to displace another from his standing position. This word (אבק) is only used in Scripture in this passage and can also mean, according to the sages, the place from which it “breaks out.” This understanding suggests an idiomatic expression for the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, “breaking forth.” The struggle, it says, continued until the breaking of day, another idiom for the coming forth of the Kingdom.
Although his adversary weakened Jacob by preventing him from using his natural abilities, when the day was breaking their positions were reversed. This seems to indicate Jacob was now deserving of the blessing to which the firstborn was entitled. The “man” touched Jacob’s hip and caused his walk to be diminished physically. Although the “touch” was a blow, still Jacob prevailed. Even though it caused him to limp or favor one side (צלע), that side was now the side of Adonai. Jacob then declared, “I have been delivered” (נצל), a word related to the side but one that points to the redemption.
Jacob’s name, often referred to as meaning “crooked,” is now changed. His adversary gives him the new name, Israel. Israel (ישראל) is generally translated one who contends with God. However, it can also mean one who is upright or straight. So, although the enemy touched the hip of Jacob and tried to diminish his walk physically, Jacob's new name indicates that his spiritual walk is now straight. He has overcome the adversary. He has won the firstborn status, the blessing of the birthright, the bride, and finally the land of Israel.