Jacob and the Angel

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Based on a lecture by Rabbi Israel Chait

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

Torah's mitzvahs cannot be simple rote acts.  They must offer opportunities to imbue us with greater knowledge of God, and perfection. 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.

Rabbi Israel Chait once offered a marvelous interpretation of Jacob wrestling with the man. The verses read as follows:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But Jacob answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “Why this asking of my name!” And he  blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

Rabbi Chait asked how the verse could say, “Jacob was alone” while also saying “he wrestled with a man until the coming of daybreak” (Gen. 32:25). If in fact Jacob was alone, no one else was present. Furthermore, of what significance was the duration of that wrestling, “until the coming of daybreak?” Torah’s account and the Rishonim's commentaries provide many details.

We are told that Jacob’s hip was dislocated in the fight. The angel (the man) then asked to be released as morning was coming. (Again, morning is an issue.) Jacob conceded to release the angel on the condition that he received a blessing.  The angel then named him Israel, meaning that, “Jacob wrestled with man and before God, and succeeded.” The Rabbis say this angel was the officer of Esav. Who is that “officer?”  We wonder why at this specific moment, when Esav is traveling towards Jacob with 400 men to attack him and his family, does Jacob have this battle. We are also told that the dust of the ground “rose to the heavens” due to the struggle. Rabbi Chait 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 made Jacob aware of his own poor trait. Esav was a warrior; this was his essence. He lived to project a self-image as a powerful man. Many people live their lives striving to maintain a favorable self-image. Jacob too was 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, for a man following God, satisfying this specific ego emotion was incorrect: God must be the focus, not the self. So Jacob began to “struggle with his self-image” to release himself from the grips of this emotion. Jacob was struggling with his own personality, referred to as angel or the 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 Esav’s essence.

To indicate that this struggle was in the realm of perfection, i.e., metaphysical issues, we are taught, “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 during the day; 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 respectively. Nighttime is the domain of the unconscious; dreams are unconscious matters. Jacob 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 cannot 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 new direction in life. Whenever we make a significant change in our philosophy, our energies do not move quickly towards this new direction. It takes time to withdraw our energies from the former path, and redirect them towards a new path. Limping signifies this slowdown of energies.

We abstain from eating this part of the animal to demonstrate the vital need to conquer our own personality flaws.

Jacob named that location Piniel (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 the wise, 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, they should imbue us with the realization that God wishes that we fully 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 teachers, and discard simplistic or childish explanations.