By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
In a few terse verses, the weekly portion of Vayishlach tells of a wrestling match that had dramatic repercussions for the Children of Israel. A few hundred years later, the prophet Hosea reported that Jacob “wrestled a god-like being / and he wrestled with an angel / and he prevailed….” At first, it sounds like there were two wrestling matches, but Hosea is speaking poetically. In fact, the prophet is saying that Jacob’s opponent was an angel (malach), which is a god-like being (elohim). Likewise, the “angels” who ascended and descended the stairway in Jacob’s dream were designated as malachei-elohim, “angels of God,” which we could also translate as “god-like angels.” What we learn here is that, by the eighth century BCE, folks in Israel believed that their ancestor Jacob had wrestled with an angel. The Torah, however, does not say that.
The Torah clearly states, “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Precisely this formulation gave me the title for my recently published anthology, “Alone and Wrestling.”)
People have interpreted this juxtaposition of “alone” and “a man wrestled” in a great many ways. Maimonides, for one, points out that many times in the Bible a man is encountered or speaks a word and only later does the hero or heroine realize that he or she was visited by an angel. In Genesis, Jacob could easily have faced off against this man only to realize later that he had “striven with beings divine and human.” And “divine and human” is a pretty apt description for an angel who can wrestle, injure Jacob and still bless Jacob with a new name.
The folklorist J.G. Frazer thought that Jacob wrestled with the Jabbok River demon. In an ill-conceived plan to protect his household, Jacob had crossed the Jabbok twice in one night, though even one crossing might have sufficed to provoke the river demon — twice was a veritable invitation for the Jabbok demon to wrestle with this champion of chutzpah (my word, not Frazer’s, but succinct, I think)!
Carl Jung speaks of “the shadow,” a part of us with which we often wrestle in dreams or in visions. As Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” Jacob, in other words, may be struggling with himself — how shall he present himself the next day to his brother Esau who may not only mean to harm him but who also has good reason to seek revenge against him?
The anonymous wrestler blesses Jacob with a new name, “Israel.” The new name is a blessing, a message and a step forward for Jacob. His old name came from the word for “heel” because he came out of the womb grasping at his twin brother Esau’s heel. His old name tied him to Esau in sibling rivalry. His new name Ysr-El, “Isra-El,” ties him to God, at least to what my generation likes to call “God-wrestling.”
The sages pointed out that angels are God’s messengers — some speculate that angels appear only to deliver a message. Once the message is delivered, the angel simply disappears. You might even say, the angel and the message are one and the same. Taking a page, then, from Maimonides, you can see that anyone you meet might inspire you or give you a message so that later you would look back and say, “That was the day I met an angel.” And what that means is, you may deliver a message to someone you encounter — even to someone you wrestle with — that turns out to be a message or a blessing and that makes you someone else’s angel. Best of all, we can seek to be angels — to deliver inspiring messages and blessings — whenever and wherever we can.
Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “Alone and Wrestling: An Anthology,” available wherever angelic books are sold. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.