Women pray at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: JWRP)
This week’s portion describes Jacob’s return with his family from his father-in-law’s home in Haran- Padan Aram back to the land of his fathers, the Land of Israel – then called the Land of Canaan. The pinnacle of this journey is the complex and emotionally charged meeting between Jacob and his older brother Esau. The latter, as we remember, was waiting for the day when he could kill Jacob in revenge for the blessings Jacob tricked their father Isaac into giving him. This was the central reason why Jacob fled his father’s house for Haran. Now Jacob is returning to his land not knowing how Esau will react to his return. Has he forgiven him during the years that have passed since that same incident, or does his original plan to get back at Jacob still stand? Jacob does not know, so he makes various plans in preparation for the encounter. He sends gifts to Esau; he prepares his family for battle; and – of course – he prays to God.
We read about another encounter that takes place the night before the meeting with Esau with a mysterious figure who is not willing to identify himself. The encounter quickly becomes a struggle that lasts all night; a struggle that has ramifications to this day. Let us read the verses that describe the struggle and its results: “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him… “And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.’ … And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] ‘I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved.’ “Therefore, the Children of Israel may not eat the displaced tendon, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, in the hip sinew. (Genesis 32, 25-33) In this mysterious story we read about an angel (in the Bible, angels are occasionally referred to as “God”) who wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn. The struggle ends with Jacob’s victory, but victory has a price: Jacob sprains his hip. In commemoration of this struggle, the Jewish nation refrains from eating the “gid hanasheh,” the “displaced tendon” of animals.
What was this struggle? What is the message we learn from it? And why is it that thousands of years later, we are still careful about refraining from eating the gid hanasheh (sciatic nerve) in order to remember this struggle and its results? This struggle that lasted through the night carried an important message for Jacob moments before his meeting with Esau, and this message is still relevant to us.
Jacob does not know what will happen the following day at the charged meeting with his brother, and this angel who comes to wrestle with him comes to teach him about the eternal struggle “until the break of dawn” that he and his descendants will be part of, and of its results.
From its inception, the Jewish nation has faced and continues to face waves of hatred and anti-Semitism. The enlightened world of today is also not devoid of these phenomena as we see in the clearly biased reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While hundreds of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in neighboring countries and the world does not bother to denounce this horrific situation, we face across-the-board denunciation for placing a mobile structure for security purposes. There is no logical explanation for this. But there is an intrinsic one.
The struggle between Jacob and his descendants and the “brothers” went on until the break of dawn, until the complete redemption when all of humanity recognizes the moral supremacy of the Jewish nation and its tremendous contribution to the advancement of all of humanity.
The first message is that there will be an end to this terrible struggle and it will end with the victory of Jacob over the enemy. The end, we are promised, will be good.
But we must not be complacent. Despite the fact that Jacob emerges victorious from the struggle, he pays a heavy price and becomes crippled. There is no need to list the heavy price paid by the Jewish nation in the pogroms, the Holocaust … and up to today when terrorists armed with primitive ammunition go out into the streets to murder innocent Jews. We are sure of our victory, but we know that the path that leads to it is not simple and requires tremendous efforts while exacting a high price.
We must always remember that we do not eat the gid hanasheh. This is an eternal reminder of an eternal struggle. Despite its heavy price, its end is guaranteed in the words of the angel-person: “You have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.