Saturday, December 12, 2009

Vayishlah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at December 2005, November 2006, November 2007, and December 2008.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

The nature and identity of the mysterious figure with whom Jacob wrestles at the Ford of Jabok is discussed in the Talmud in Hullin, the tractate dealing with various aspects of kashrut. The specific context is a halakhic discussion of the prohibition of gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve or “hamstring”—offhand, the only kashrut regulation that serves a commemorative purpose, namely, to remember that selfsame struggle. After discussing whether this law applies to both of the animal’s hind legs or to only one, the Talmud concludes that it applies to only one, and turns to the question of which leg. In doing so, it invokes various theories as to the nature of this figure, in each case using it to prove that the “hollow of the thigh” on which Yaakov limped was that of the right side. Hullin 91a:

R. Joshua ben Levi said: Scripture says, “When he struggled with him” (Gen 32:25)—like a person who embraces his fellow, his hand reaching to the right -hand thigh-hollow of his fellow. Rabbi Shmuel b. Nahmani said: He appeared to him like an idolator. … Rav Shmuel bar Ahha said before Rav Pappa in the name of Rabba bar Ulla: He seemed to him like a sage….

We read elsewhere in the Midrash that this figure was the “Prince of Esau.” Assuming this to be the case, how are we to understand the vast range of images used here, from “idolator,” through “friend/fellow man” to “Sage”? At the risk of over-interpretation (or “eisegesis,” reading too much into the text), perhaps this reflected different ways of viewing the non-Jewish world represented by Esau. A predominant view in much of Jewish thought is that of the “idolator”—that is, that the non-Jewish world lies irredeemably sunk in the morass of paganism, with all that implies in terms of world-view, superstition, ethical level, etc. The image of “fellow” is more neutral: The Esau-ite is a fellow human-being, with all the potential for good and evil that implies. Finally, the image of the talmid-hakham suggests that Esau, notwithstanding all his bad habits and seemingly coarse nature in real life, he is somehow still a true son of the patriarch Isaac, and that the “Prince of Esau,” the heavenly archetype from which he somehow draws his vital energy, is somehow sublime and connected to holiness.

And how did our Rabbis interpret the phrase, “when he struggled with him”? It is needed for the saying of R. Joshua ben Levi, for R. Joshua b. Levi said: This teaches that the dust of their feet rose up to the Throne of Glory. It says here, “when he struggled with him” and it says there “And a cloud is the dust of His feet” (Nahum 1:3).

Here, a few lines further in the same sugya, Yaakov’s struggle is raised to a new level, to a conflict of cosmic significance, the dust of their feet rising to the Divine Throne of Glory: i.e., that God Himself is interested in the outcome of this conflict!

We turn to another midrash, with a certain thematic conception:

“And Jacob remained alone” (Gen 32:24). It is written “There is none like the God of Jeshurun” (Deut 33:26). R Berekhiah in the name of R. Simon said: “There is none like God.” And who is like God? Jeshurun! — [That is,] Grandfather Israel. Just as it is written of the Holy One blessed be He “and the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:11), so too Jacob “And Jacob was left alone” (ibid). —Genesis Rabbah 77.1

Here we turn to a wholly different dimension, a very radical reading indeed, in which Yaakov (and, by extension, the Jewish people as a whole, the term Yisrael Sabba often being used to allude to the eternal aspect of Israel’s existence in the world) are seen as being similar to God, at least in His aspect of aloneness, and perhaps uniqueness. Jacob remains alone, providing the setting for his encounter with the angel. But this somehow makes him similar to the Almighty—as if to say that, somehow, individuation, being alone, are seen as signs of a higher kind of spirituality, of a state perhaps in which the intellect and the focused activity of the mind is somehow more concentrated. While the prophets may have spoken their message to the throng, to the public, they developed their capacity for spiritual insight and receptivity through long period of solitude. Rav Soloveitchik often spoke of the enhanced quality of human dignity one when one is not part of the throng, the mass, the swarming multitude—and these being symbolized by Israel’s somewhat solitary position among the nations.


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