Jacob and the Angel

Moshe Ben-Chaim


The human being is quite intricate in design. This applies not only to our bodies, but more essentially, to what and how we think, feel, value and decide. As the Torah is not to perfect our bodies, but is a guide for our most primary objective – the perfection of our souls — the Torah includes lessons on how to attain this perfection. 

The Torah's mitzvahs cannot be simple rote acts.  They must offer us opportunities to imbue us with greater knowledge of God, and perfection, if we study them. This explains why the Rabbis wrote about mitzvahs at great length, and why the Talmud is voluminous. But Torah contains more than mitzvahs; there are countless stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. These stories must offer us lessons in perfection. Jacob and the angel is such an example.

A wise Rabbi once offered a marvelous interpretation. He commenced by asking how the verse could say that "Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the coming of daybreak (Gen. 32:25)." If in fact Jacob was "alone," no one else was present! And why do we care that they wrestled only until the "morning"? The Torah account and the Rishonim's commentaries provide many details. 

We are told that Jacob's hip socket was dislocated in the fight. The angel then asked to be released as morning was coming. (Again, morning is an issue.) Jacob conceded to release the angel only if he received a blessing.  So the angel gave him the name Israel, meaning that Jacob wrestled with man and before God, and succeeded. The Rabbis say this angel was the "officer of Esav." We wonder why at this specific moment, when Esav is traveling towards Jacob with 400 men to annihilate him and his family, does Jacob have this "fight." We are also told that the dust of the ground "rose to the heavens" due to the struggle. This wise Rabbi offered the following beautiful insights.

As the verse states, Jacob was alone. The Rabbis ultimately described the "man" to be an "angel" and the "officer of Esav." In fact, this struggle was Jacob battling a component of his personality. 

Esav's approach awoke in Jacob a self-awareness of a problematic trait he harbored. Esav was a warrior; this was his essence, a "man". Esav was essentially living without intelligence and by pure emotion. He primary lived to project and maintain his self-image as a powerful man. Many people live their lives striving to maintain a self-image that pleases them. Jacob too is human, and possessed the desire for a self-image. As Esav approached, this awoke in Jacob this realization that Jacob too desired a self-image. But Jacob felt that living to satisfy this specific ego emotion was incorrect for a man following God. God must be the focus, not the self. So Jacob began to "struggle" with his self-image so as to release himself from the grips of this emotion. Jacob was struggling with his own personality, referred to as "angel" or "officer of Esav".  Angel simply refers to a force: here, a psychological force. And "officer of Esav" informs us of the specific force: the ego, or self-image which was essentially what Esav was. He had no higher function, and was simply striving to maintain a self-image. 

To indicate that this struggle was in the realm of perfection or metaphysical issues, we are taught that the dust reached the "heavens" (a spiritual battle), and also that the angel had to leave once morning came. This unconscious force – this "angel" – is not conscious to us at most times; our underlying feelings are mostly hidden. We are unaware of them during the "day" when we are conscious. The Torah uses "day" and "night" to refer to our conscious and unconscious states respectively. This explains why our unconscious thoughts are revealed in dreams, at night. Jacob too wrestled with his unconscious feelings at night, explaining why the angel had to "leave" in the morning. In the morning, the conscious takes over, and we can not readily tap this part of our psyches.

Jacob asked the angel to "bless" him. This means Jacob was reflecting upon himself and the inner workings of his psyche. He was a brilliant man. He was investigating what benefits – blessings – he might obtain by controlling this psychological force. Once Jacob succeeded over this emotion, he awoke and was "limping." Bilam too hurt his leg in his vision. In both cases, limping refers to a slower movement in a specific direction in life. Whenever we make a significant change in our outlook, our energies do not move quickly towards this new direction. It takes time to withdraw our energies from one emotionally-involved path, and redirect them towards a new path. We abstain from eating this part of the animal to demonstrate the vital need to conquer our own personality flaws.

Jacob named that location Pini-ale (face of God), referring to his confrontation with his personality to perfect himself before God. He says "my soul was saved" indicating that he saved his soul from incorrect values. 

The Torah discloses vital information, but conceals those areas that people typically will not grasp, or accept. This concealment preserves the truth we require, making it available only to our wise leaders…while protecting those less informed from disparaging the Torah when it does not meet with their approval. Psychological truths are now world known. These ideas should pose no threat to our generation, and in fact, imbue us with the realization that God wishes that we deeply understand our psyches and personalities, and perfect ourselves accordingly.

The Torah contains Mitzvahs and accounts of our Prophets. To derive the depths of God's wisdom, we must investigate both areas under the guidance of intelligent leaders, and discard explanations that simplify this brilliant Torah system.