Who was the man who wrestled with Jacob? Most commentators refer to the man as an angel.
More specifically, as Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, "It was the prince of Esau" (B'reishit Rabbah
77:3), implying that the "man" was the guardian angel of Jacob\u2019s brother Esau. The mysterious
man\u2019s refusal to share his own name and his urgency to be set free before daybreak seem to
indicate that he was more angel than human.
The chapter begins with Jacob sending messengers to his brother. When the messengers return
with the news that Esau is on his way to meet Jacob, along with an army of four hundred men,
Jacob is terrified and devises a plan. He selects hundreds of animals\u2500ewes, goats, and others\u2500as
gifts for his brother. What most people understand in this passage is that Jacob is trying to win his
brother\u2019s favor by placating him with gifts. But there is more to it than that.
In Genesis 32:18\u221221, Jacob instructs his servants saying, "If my brother Esau meets you and asks
you, 'To whom do you belong, where are you going, and whose are these ahead of you?' say,
'These are your servant\u2019s, Jacob\u2019s; it is an offering sent to my lord Esau; and in fact he is following
close behind us.\u2019" He instructed the second, too, and third as well, and all [the others] who were to
follow the droves, saying, "Thus and so shall you say to Esau when you reach him. And you shall
add, 'And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.\u2019"
It is Genesis 32:20 that clues us in to Jacob's true purpose. Thus and so shall you say to Esau\u2014 in
other words, the stuff about the gifts, that is just "thus and so." When Esau asks you about them,
just say, you know, yadda yadda yadda, and you shall add\u2014 now, this is the part you cannot get
wrong, this is not mere thus and so\u2014And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us. What does Jacob mean to convey to Esau by having his servants emphasize, one after the other, that Jacob is right behind?
I read it as an invitation. Jacob is essentially telling his brother, "This is an old feud between siblings
that began when we were still quite young. Let\u2019s resolve this, just the two of us, and leave the
armies out of it. No one has to know. You are a hunter and a warrior, and I am ready to face you
without trickery, without deceit. I am no longer the mild man who stays in camp. I am by the river,
unarmed, under cover of night, and I am ready to do this. Man to man. Meet me."
As for the "man" renaming Jacob "Israel," as it is written in Genesis 32:29, ". . . for you have
struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed," I do not see this as evidence
of the man\u2019s divine origins. Rather, it is a reference to the time Esau learned his brother had stolen
his father\u2019s blessing. In Genesis 27:36, Esau declared, "Is he not named Jacob? Twice now he has
cheated me\u2500he took my birthright and now, look, he has taken my blessing!"
The name Jacob means "supplanter" or "trickster," and clearly this is how Esau sees him. Esau has
two names, Esau and Edom, meaning "hairy" and "red," respectively. Both names describe his
appearance. Until the night of wrestling, Jacob only has one name, an action name, which
describes an aspect of his character that Esau far from admires. After Esau realizes that Jacob has
indeed grown, Esau finally gives his brother his second name, a new action name, one that is far
more heroic. It is as if Esau is saying, "After this night I will no longer think of you as the one named
Jacob, who supplanted me two times in my youth, for as an adult you have shown me that you
have grown courageous and strong. You are no longer my cowardly little brother hiding behind his
pot of lentil stew, sneaking around wearing skins to pretend you are me, fooling our dear father.
From now on, I will call you Israel."
However, when Jacob encounters Esau the next day, in the open, he explains, "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10). There is no animosity expressed in the text between them. Their demons have been put to rest.
Why are the commentators reluctant to see the man as Esau himself? Strange as it sounds,
sometimes it is easier to wrestle with God than it is to wrestle with our fellow man. It is easier to
wrestle with theological concepts than it is to confront our neighbor.
I believe that to consider the man an angel is to stifle an essential message of the Torah. The
message is that it is possible to reconcile, that it doesn\u2019t take a miracle to heal the rift between
siblings. It does take courage, often heartache, and as in Jacob\u2019s case, a twisted hip joint! But it is
possible. Brothers who at one time vow to kill one another can reunite with kisses and weeping. In
the middle of the night, by the Jabbok river, two brothers come together. They wrestle. They fight.
And at daybreak, light breaks, and for the first time, they see the divine image in each other. Esau
sees Jacob as one who wrestles with beings divine and human, and Jacob sees in Esau\u2019s face the
face of God.
As I wonder why the commentators are reluctant to see the man as flesh and blood, I also find
myself wondering why we are reluctant to see the divine in each other. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of
Berdichev said, whether a person really loves God can only be determined by the love that person
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