Alone With An Angel

Alone With An Angel

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:11 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 32:4-36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12
(Ashkenaz); Book of Obadiah
(Sephard) Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.

Not since he was a fugitive nearly 22 years before had Jacob known such loneliness. In his life there had been no vacuum. With God’s blessing at Beth-El came not one, but four wives, as well as a proliferation of children, livestock, servants, and even angels, keeping him so preoccupied that he barely had a moment to himself. Suddenly it was all threatened.

No sooner has Jacob and his family escape from Laban than he learns that Esau was advancing toward them with a veritable army. All the blessings now seemed top-heavy, serving only to imbue him with a sense of his own smallness, putting his self-worth in doubt.

And almost immediately, “Jacob was left alone” [Genesis. 32:25]. At this moment of pure isolation and danger, someone enfolded him in a tight embrace and tried to wrestle him to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust. Who was this stranger, angel or human, friend or foe? And who was the victor?

Although this parshah is full of references to Jacob’s day-to-day intimacy with angels, the word used for them all is malach, or “messenger,” while in this episode the angel-stranger is referred to simply as ish, or “man,” but here a term indicating man in his highest form, a person very much like Jacob. Because of the violence in the encounter, however, most commentators take this “man” to have been the angel of Esau, with the same murderous intentions.

Yet there is a Midrash that says this angel appears to Jacob in the guise of a shepherd, with flocks and camels, just as he had. The shepherd suggests they help each other out: he would take Jacob’s flocks across the water and Jacob could take his. The shepherd is then instrumental in ferrying all of Jacob’s belongings over the river, but when Jacob returns to fulfill his part of the bargain, the task proves endless, until finally “there wrestled a man with him,” the same one with whom he has made the pact. At this juncture, his antagonist, who first presents himself in brotherly fashion, turns on him, just as he suspects Esau would.

The incident resonates with a similar confrontation between Moses and an avenging angel, in which it is unclear whether the angel had come to slay either Moses or his newborn son because of a delay in circumcision. Just as that bizarre manifestation of Divinity is averted only by a woman taking the knife into her own hand, here, too, one feels instinctively that what the angel means to tell Jacob by this attack is that there is something in himself he has to fix.

As to who got the upper hand, it is clear that it was Jacob because of the new name the angel gave Jacob — “Israel,” meaning “the one who gains victory over human and superhuman beings” [Gen. 32:28].

However, the Netsiv concludes that both Jacob and the angel prevailed — and both lost. The word that encapsulates the spirit of their encounter, va-yahavak (meaning, he grappled, or embraced him) indicates warm physical contact. According to the Netsiv, because the word is repeated, the interaction must have come in two waves. At first, when he is set upon by his brother’s patron and is therefore the injured party, Jacob emerges as victorious, and “the Other” literally “bites the dust” — in the same root word, avak, there are elements of this meaning as well. But at dawn, when the angel requests that Jacob relent but he refuses, then Jacob loses ground to his antagonist who wounds him on the thigh, forcing Jacob to release him. (Is it possible to associate this Divine wounding with circumcision, which serves as an act of completion for the Jewish male?) Only after this release does the angel bless him with the name Israel, signifying the magnanimous, princely kind of human being who understands how to elicit the best from other people and from God Himself!

Emerging from this encounter with the words “for I have seen God face-to-face, but I am still alive” [Gen. 32:31], Jacob also seems to believe that he had been wrestling with God himself and that there had been a positive outcome. When he meets up with Esau that day, he recognizes in his features some of the same aspects of godliness, and brings out the best from his brother.

What above all Jacob is grateful for, besides the gift of his new name, is that throughout all the painful transitions in his identity and the correspondingly terrifying manifestations of God, he had not died. As the sun shone on him with healing, like the smallest creature, he was grateful to God for the actual gift of life. 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review.

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