Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for your response about the encounter between the angel of Esau and Jacob. I still was wondering what is the significance of touching his hip, of all places. It seems like there’s more important places to try to harm than the leg. I understand what you said about the Jewish people limping, but is there anything more to this?
There is, in fact, another understanding of the encounter that you mention, which explains why Esau’s spiritual patron was out to affect Jacob’s legs.
The deeper Jewish mystical sources explain the following (Zohar, Parashas Vayishlach 171a). Jacob, of all the patriarchs, represented the study of Torah. “The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows trapping, a man of the field; but Jacob was a man of completion, abiding in the tents” (Genesis 25:27). “Abiding in the tents” means that Jacob spent his days and nights studying Torah, according to Rashi’s analysis of Genesis 25:27.
The Zohar teaches that the struggle between Jacob and the patron angel of Esau was a spiritual one; Esau did not want Jacob to take the birthright and the Torah that accompanied it. The angel was attempting to remove the Torah from Jacob’s ownership, taking it out of his hands and heart.
When the angel saw he could not overcome Jacob, because his love of Torah was so intense that he would rather die than to cease his study and observance of it, the angel touched his leg. The legs of a person hold him or her up. They represent standing up and walking forward.
Like the legs of Jacob held him up, so too the supporters of Torah throughout the generations are like the legs of the Torah. Those who monetarily support Torah become the legs of the Torah who prop it up, making it accessible to those who want to study it. As the sages say, “if there’s no flour, there’s no Torah” (Mishna, Avos 3:17).
When Esau touched Jacob’s leg to move his hip out of place, he was “touching” the supporters of Torah throughout the generations. He knew that the Jewish people loved the study and observance of Torah too much to minimize it directly, so he had an alternative plan. He would minimize the desire of the Jews of means to appreciate the importance of Torah study, so they won’t support it wholeheartedly and to the extent they should (R’ Tzadok Hacohen, Pri Tzadik, Kobeitz Ha’mincha 37 in explanation of this Zohar). The lack of support will minimize the amount and intensity of Torah study, thereby weakening the “voice of Jacob” in the yeshivos, kollels and synagogues.
This, says the Zohar, will give Esau and his offspring (namely the Roman and, subsequently, Western culture and nations) the ability to control Jacob. Isaac said to Jacob, at the time of the blessings, “… the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). The Talmud explains this to mean that when the voice of Jacob is strong and powerful, reverberating the sound of Torah in the study halls, then the “hands of Esau” are powerless to harm us. But when the voice of Jacob becomes weak (see commentary of Vilna Gaon), Esau’s hands then are empowered and able to harm us and take us over.
The angel of Esau, by minimizing the support of Torah by touching the support of Jacob, crippling his legs, was preparing the stage for later troubles he would cause to the Jewish people.
Those individuals who, indeed, stand up and wholeheartedly and generously support the Torah become the “legs of Jacob,” the support of the Torah itself. Upon them the Torah bestows the blessing, “Baruch asher yakim es divrei haTorah hazos” (Deuteronomy 27:26), blessed is he who upholds this Torah.