Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been contemplating the message of the struggle between Jacob and the patron angel of Esau in Genesis 32. Are we supposed to learn something from the angel touching Jacob’s hip? Jacob won the struggle against the angel but walked away limping; is there a message in this, or is it just what happened then and there?
As I think you understand in your question, there are no stories or messages in the Torah that were mentioned solely for their historical value. All stories told in the Torah carry a timeless message that applies to today as it did then. The Torah is not meant to be a history book (although it is certainly rich in historical facts), rather a book of laws and moral teachings.
The Torah itself, at the end of that chapter, mentions a ramification in Jewish law for all time due to the touching of the angel to Jacob’s hip: that the Jews are not allowed to eat the sciatic nerve of an animal. This is codified into Jewish law, known as gid hanasheh, and requires the hindquarters of a cow to be dissected in a special way that avoids the sciatic nerve and its surrounding fats.
This doesn’t really answer your question; rather, it strengthens it. What is so important about this encounter that it has been encoded into Jewish law for all time?
Let us consider a message offered by our sages.
One is a message of assimilation. The Talmud teaches us, based upon a verse, that a Jew, no matter how far he or she may stray from Jewish beliefs and practices, remains a Jew (Tractate Sanhedrin 40a). Once a Jew always a Jew. “Yisrael, af al pi she’chata, Yisrael hu.”
This teaching carries both a positive and a potentially negative connotation. The obvious positive message is that a Jew can always return and need not convert back to Judaism, even after joining another religion.
That very same point carries a damaging perspective; we could have Jews within the fold whose lives are antithetical and even hostile to Judaism and its teachings, and still be part of the fold. The Jews of every generation are collectively considered as one body. If one’s leg is sick, then the entire body is unhealthy. If one is limping due to a broken leg, the entire body is limping.
When Esau’s angel saw he couldn’t destroy Jacob, he touched him in the hip to make him limp; he touched the many Jews that his (later Western) society would one day influence many Jews to assimilate into the culture of his offspring. Although this would not destroy the Jews completely, that assimilation causes the entire body of the Jewish people to be severely impeded in their attempt to be a light unto the nations.
The Torah says that Jacob limped until he came to the city of Sukkos (Genesis 33:17), when at that point he was cured of his limp (Rashi on Genesis 33:18). The Rabbis teach that Sukkos is hinting to the final time of our history, the Messianic redemption, when the Jews will become complete, like Jacob was considered complete at that moment.
When we usher in the long-awaited Messianic period, the entire Jewish body — all those who are part of Klal Yisrael — will recognize their part in the mission of the Jewish people and its requirements. We so look forward to when the Jewish people will be fully healthy again.
Dear Rabbi Fried,