Jacob and the Angel
Rabbi Israel Chait
Written by a student
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.
Rabbi Israel Chait once offered a marvelous interpretation of Jacob wrestling with the man. He asked how the verse could say, “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. Of what significance was the duration of that wrestling, “until the coming of daybreak?” The Torah 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. What is that “officer?” 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 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 a problematic personality trait. Esav was a warrior; this was his essence. He lived to project and maintain his 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, that living to satisfy 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 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 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 respectively. Nighttime is the domain of the unconscious; dreams are unconscious matters. 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 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 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. 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 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, 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.