Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 28 November 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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This Parsha contains one of the most famous and enigmatic narratives of the lives of the Patriarchs: “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated...Then he said, ‘Let me go, for dawn has broken.’ And he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob’. He said, ‘No longer will be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.’ Then Jacob inquired, and he said, ‘Divulge if you please, your name.’ And he said, ‘Why do you inquire of my name?’ And he blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, ’For I have seen the Divine face-to-face yet my life was spared.’ The sun rose for him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on his hip. Therefore the Children of Israel are not to eat the displaced sinew on the hip-socket to this day, because he struck Jacob’s hip-socket on the displaced sinew.” (Ber. 32:25-31)

Abarbanel begins by explaining the details of the struggle on a simple, primarily literal level, before he analyzes the exact nature of the prophecy and the deeper meaning of this encounter. He starts off by viewing this as an actual wrestling match between Yaakov and an angel, or messenger of G-d in human form, to determine who will vanquish whom. Yaakov gets the angel into a grip from which he cannot escape. As a result, the angel resorts to the desperate tactic of striking him and dislocating his hip so he could not move. Still unable to free himself, the angel asks Yaakov to let him go. This would be to Yaakov’s benefit anyhow, since Esav is drawing closer every moment. Yaakov demands a blessing first, as it was the way of combatants in a wrestling match for the loser to admit to the superiority of the winner. The vanquished angel acquiesces and reveals to him that he has struggled with both the Divine and man together, as the angel is a Divine being in the form of a man. The angel also reveals to him that his name will be changed to Israel, whose root is related to the word for struggle.

Now aware that the man is really an angel, Yaakov wants to know his name, i.e. his essence. Has G-d sent an angel of mercy or an angel of harsh strict judgment? The angel responds that there is no purpose in asking the question. He is telling him, ‘Do you think you can call on me anytime to assist you, like a master who summons his servant? I am under G-d’s direction only. He defines my purpose. Be satisfied that I am blessing you now as I was commanded. You cannot call on me in the future.'

Before analyzing the deeper symbolisms of the encounter, Abarbanel examines the exact nature of the prophecy. He brings the Rambam, who says that this was a prophetic dream and not an actual physical encounter. If so, Abarbanel asks, how could Yaakov wake up with an actual physical injury? Granted, a dream can have a physical effect on the dreamer, e.g. a seminal emission as the result of a dream about a woman, or feeling pain after dreaming about falling from a great height. However, in this case Yaakov appears to have suffered an actual physical dislocation of his hip. This could not be the result of a dream, however prophetic.

As a result Abarbanel treats this incident the same way he did with the three angels who appear to Avraham in Parshat Vayera. Yaakov did not actually wrestle with an angel nor did he have a dream while asleep. Rather, the event never actually occurred in the physical world. Miraculously, G-d brought about a complete sensory experience while he was fully awake. (Today we have a great deal of evidence of similar experiences with people under hypnosis or suffering from mental disorders that result in hearing voices, hallucinations and visions, and phantom physical disabilities that do not exist at all but seem very real to those who experience them.)

What were the profound messages that G-d was conveying to Yaakov? The angel is the angel of Esav, who, under G-d’s command, directs the fortunes of Esav and the nations that descend from him. Since Yaakov prevails in the struggle, G-d is telling him that he needn’t be afraid of his brother. However, the injury close to the reproductive area of the body symbolizes the fact that the offspring of Esav will, in the future, continue to contend with, and harm, the offspring of Yaakov. However, when the sun rises, i.e. at the time of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish People, the roles will be reversed, and Esav will beg Yaakov to let him go just as a slave begs his master to free him. Just as Yaakov in the vision asks the angel for a blessing, so too in the future the Jewish nation will demand that the legitimacy of their having received Yitzchak’s blessings be acknowledged.

The fact that Yaakov names the place “Penuel” is another indication that this vision occurred when he was fully awake. When a prophecy occurs during a dream, the venue does not merit a special name. This situation was much more unusual and awe-inspiring for two reasons. When Yaakov says, “for I have seen the Divine face-to-face”, he means that G-d communicated to him fully awake. When he continues and says, “yet my life was spared”, he is referring to having prevailed in a frighteningly dangerous struggle with implications far into the future of the Jewish nation.

Finally, the Torah tells us that for all time we are not to eat the displaced sinew of the hip-socket. This is to impress upon us with a mitzvah from Sinai the aforementioned doubly unusual and awe-inspiring prophecy. Even though the Jewish nation is “injured and lame” due to the struggle with Esav, ultimately it will triumph with the final redemption. As the prophet Micah states (4:6-7), “On that day, says The L-rd, I will assemble the lame one and gather in the one driven away and whomever I have harmed and I will make the lame one into a remnant and the one forced to wander into a mighty nation; and G-d will rule over them at Mt. Zion, from now and forever.”

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