Friday, December 10, 2010

Vayigash (Individual & Community)

For more teachings , both on the parashah and on Hanukkah, see the archives to my blog at 2005_12-10-archive/html. as well as at January and December 2007, January and December 2009.

A Battle of Titans

This week’s parashah begins at the very peak of the tension between the brothers and the mysterious Egyptian viceroy whose actions are tormenting them. They have been rushed back to Egypt because his silver divining goblet is missing and has been discovered in the sack of Benjamin, the youngest son, their father’s favorite, the only surviving child of his beloved Rachel and the sibling of the missing and presumably dead Joseph—and it is this brother whom the Egyptian official wishes to hold hostage. What can they do to save him? Reuben’s offer of the life of his own two sons in exchange for Benjamin is (typically) rash and half-baked. At this point Judah steps forward, offering to stand as surety for the lad—and by the end of the conversation, the man breaks down and reveals his true identity as their long-lost brother Joseph.

But our Sages see a subtext to this drama. It reflects the personal and historical conflict between Judah and Joseph over the question: Which one is deserving to be the leader of the Jewish people in the future? Who shall be “king”? No less than three midrashim on the opening verse of this lection portray the brothers observing the two speaking, as they stand aside saying: “Kings are discussing / contending with one another, what affair is it of ours?” (Gen Rab. 93. 2a, b, 5). The clear implication is that this is a struggle for the future leadership of the people; a kind of anticipation of the future split in the Israelites kingdom between Judah in the south, and Israel, led by various royal dynasties, many of whom came from the tribes of Joseph, in the north.

What follows is largely based upon a lecture I heard many years ago from the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who elaborated upon the question: What qualities are demanded or expected of a leader of the Jewish people? He began by comparing the two mothers. Joseph was the elder son of Rachel, while Judah, though the fourth son of Leah, was the only one worthy of consideration (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi had all, for one reason or another, shown themselves unfit for leadership).

Rachel was beautiful, and was Jacob’s first and life-long, intense love—but for many years she was childless. There was something poignant, almost sacrificial about her life story (like her name rahel, meaning “ewe,” one of the sacrificial animals). She died young; her life was filled with frustration, with non-realization. Leah, by contrast, was plain and unloved, but she was the mother of six children, and was clearly the mistress of the house. The Rav suggested that the root of her name, lil’ot, to be tired, exhausted from hard (and at times fruitless or pointless) work, fits this characteristic. She was the baalaboste, the woman who organized and ran Jacob’s large a household, who was on top of every detail, every aspect, every need of her husband and children, whether large or small. At the end of the day she was exhausted; she was hardly a romantic figure, but she was the person who made this home exist. The Rachels of this world may be more appealing emotionally, aesthetically, romantically and sexually, but it is the Leahs who make things happen, who make things go.

We now turn to Joseph and Judah as such. The Rav saw Joseph as an embodiment of the type referred to by Maimonides in the final chapter of his Shmonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”; i.e., Introduction to Pirkei Avot), as the type of the person who tends by his nature towards the good, who does not need to struggle with his desires and impulses in the same way as do others; he is in some sense “naturally” good. This is the type referred to in later Kabbalistic literature as the Tzaddik, a term which has two meanings: in the Kabbalistic sense, as a channel or vessel through which Divine flow and abundance comes into the world; on the simple level, as a righteous man, a person who has so conquered his Evil Urge as to no longer know the desire to do evil.

By contrast, Judah is characterized as a person of strong drives and impulses—he had a powerful sexual drive, and he was capable of strong hatred and action. But during the course of his life underwent decisive changes. Thus, we first encounter him as an essentially negative leader, suggesting to the brothers that they throw Joseph into the pit; later, we see him following his powerful sexual impulse when he goes to the so-called harlot whom he sees by the roadside—who turns out to be his daughter-in-law in disguise. But he was capable of change, and of admitting his own faults and mistakes. When Tamar turned up pregnant, and was about to be executed for “dishonoring” the family, she relied upon Yehudah’s decency and honesty; she did not name him as the father, but simply said, “I am pregnant to the man to whom these things belong.” And he admitted, “You are more righteous than I!” (This statement is somewhat reminiscent of the scene of his descendant King David's confession before Nathan the prophet, when confronted with his adultery with Bathsheba, “I have sinned to the Lord.”) In this week’s reading, far more dramatically, Judah steps forward in an impressive, manly manner as surety for his young brother Benjamin, telling the Egyptian viceroy that under no circumstances could this boy be taken as a prisoner or hostage, for it would break his father in a decisive manner.

Hasidic texts elaborate upon this theme, describing Judah and Joseph as the archetypal baal teshuvah and tzaddik. Judah is the ba’al teshuvah, the penitent, the person who undergoes a process of inner change, who matures dramatically, who somehow undergoes an inner process through which he comes to admit his past mistakes and shortcomings. Yosef, the tzaddik, the righteous man, walks the straight and narrow his whole life; if one were cynical, one might even call him the yeled tov Yerushalayim—the “nice Jewish boy,” the person who is almost too good, whom one suspects of either self-righteousness and conformism, or of a kind of timidity, a lack of daring, a fear of taking existential risks. Did Joseph at any time undergo dramatic inner change? If he did, it’s not explicit in the text; at most, there is perhaps a certain mellowing, a certain willingness to accept others, such as that seen in the final scene of his life, Gen 50:15-21). (This discussion brings to mind a brief but revealing conversation I once had with a well-known Jewish theologian. I was discussing my rosh yeshivah, an outstanding Orthodox scholar and thinker, praising his noble ethical character, when my interlocutor said, “Yes, but he never underwent a dark night of the soul”—meaning, he never had real doubts about his faith, and this in itself was a major shortcoming.) (On tzaddik and ba’al teshuvah in Hasidic thought, see e.g., Mei Shiloah, Vol. I, Vayeshev, s.v. vayeshev ya’akov. I thank Avraham Leader for drawing my attention to this teaching)

But Joseph also had a very serious failing (from this point on, this is my own reading, not the Rav’s): there was something about him which was haughty, even arrogant. He did not know how to get along with his brothers, or with his peers, as an equal. He had a great deal of charm, which helped him to get on in the world, and captivated the women; he was even beautiful, a term only rarely used about men. Thus, I can well understand the brothers’ resentment and even hatred and jealousy of Joseph; had I been among them, I probably wouldn’t be able to stand him either. He seemed preoccupied with himself, narcissistic—and had the bad taste to go around bragging to others of his dreams of future greatness. The brothers, who were all a good deal older than him, must have seen him as a little pipsqueak: Who is this guy going around and telling us that he is going to lord it over us?

Judah, by contrast, was down-to-earth, a man of the people. He knew what it means to have powerful impulses, powerful desires, to want to seize the most from life—but he had also undergone certain experiences which made him mature. He saw himself as the first among peers; he was not aloof, didn’t go around talking about dreams of grandeur and greatness. He is, throughout, “one of the Khevre,” one of the gang—but with that, he somehow or other has that quiet, mysterious quality known as charisma or leadership.

It is interesting that in Chapter 37, when we read about the sale of Joseph, the Torah refers to his brothers as if they were a faceless mass; the only one mentioned by name, who speaks to them and perhaps suggests a different course of action, is Judah. This is true leadership (and one may well argue that his suggestion, harsh as it was, was the only one which could save Yosef’s life). Against him, as we said, Joseph was a kind of loner. Perhaps because he was so clearly highly intelligent, highly motivated, and had such a strong sense of his own worth, he also had little patience for fools—even if they were his own brothers! He managed things from above (perhaps he was the first embodiment of that modern type, the manager or administrator!), not realizing that a leader must strike a delicate and subtle balance between leading his peers and being one of them, listening to them, empathizing with them. Whether as a young man among his brothers, in Potiphar’s house, in the prison, in Pharaoh’s service, or again when the brothers and his own father come down, he is always a doer—an organizer, an arranger, an economic planner and social engineer—but always as an elitist, one who sees himself as apart from, and above, others.

All this is expressed in the later part of this week’s sedrah (Gen 47:13-26), in which Joseph organizes the Egyptian economy. (Thomas Mann calls the fourth and final volume of his great quadrilogy Joseph the Provider, modeling Joseph on FDR, but he hardly seems as benevolent and caring as that figure—whom I of course only know through parentally-mediated myth.) He gathers all of the excess grain produced during the seven years of plenty in Pharaoh’s granaries; then, during the famine years, he doles it out, or rather sells it, to the population—at first for money, then for livestock, and finally for their land and for their own persons! The people survive, but at a terrible price: they are all displaced to the cities, and become indentured servants of Pharaoh. “And the [whole] land belonged to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:20). This was, if you will, the first state economy, which is perhaps more than a little reminiscent of or if you will a foreshadowing of the type of state economy developed in the Soviet Union and other planned socialist economies in the twentieth century. It is called Communist, but in truth there is nothing Socialistic about it; it might better be designated as state capitalism, representing that place where state-planned Communism and monopoly capitalism meet—at least in their effect on the life of the little guy.

Someone once said that anti-Semites may be divided into two groups: those who think that all Jews are Communists, and those who think that all Jews are capitalists; in either case, they are seen as the source of all evil in the world, and hence deserving of hatred. Bu then there is a third group: those who think that Jews are both Communists and capitalists—never mind the contradiction. But perhaps they’re not so far wrong. In Joseph and Pharaoh’s Egypt, the two extremes met in a point which belies the difference.

* * * * *

Much has happened in recent weeks in the area of religions and public life that calls for comment and reaction, if not outraged protest—but there’s neither time nor room left. I hope to prepare a supplement this week to address all that needs addressing. Until then, Shabbat shalom to all.

Miketz - Hanukkah (Individual & Community)


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Vayeshev (Individual & Community)

For more teachings , both on the parashah and on Hanukkah, see the archives to this my blog for December 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The Vagaries of Human Interaction

I have always found Vayeshev to be one of my favorite parshiyot. Besides the fascinating contents, there is a certain stylistic elegance in its division into four separate but interlocked vignettes or short stories—two set in Egypt and two in the land of Israel. Interestingly, also, from the viewpoint of reading the Torah, is that each chapter occupies a single parashah (i.e., visual unit with spacing before and after) and is read in “whole” aliyot—either one, two or three—without any sprawl or overlap from one to the next.

What unites them thematically is, quite simply, the vagaries of human interaction. Each one displays one or another human passion—hatred, rivalry, the desire for children, lust, fear of the unknown, and in each one there is an element of treachery, deceit, or dishonesty. It opens with the ten brothers ganging up on Joseph, throwing him into the pit, selling him to a passing caravan, and then concocting a story to tell their father, using the most horrific visual aid imaginable—his bloodied coat dipped in animal blood, so that Yaakov may think that his beloved son has been mauled to death by a wild beast. There follows the story of Judah and Tamar (an interlude in the Joseph narrative): Judah refuses to marry his twice-widowed daughter-in-law to his youngest son, thereby hopefully giving her child. She engages in a ruse, disguising herself as a harlot so that Judah may impregnate her and fulfill her intense desire for a child; when her pregnancy becomes known publicly, Judah orders her killed, until presented with the staff and seal that he left with the mysterious woman he met by the roadside some months earlier, and he admits his own paternity. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: his blatant seduction by a sexually frustrated woman living, one may imagine, in a gilded cage as wife of a highly placed but evidently impotent, perhaps castrated, Pharaonic official. When her advances are refused, she tells a malicious lie, blaming him for the abortive affair, landing the innocent and somewhat naive young man in prison. Finally, the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cup-bearer which he succeeds in interpreting, and its final chilling sentence: “And the wine master did not remember Joseph, but he forgot him” (Gen 40:23)—ending the parashah on a note of human ingratitude and indifference that sums up the chapter as a whole.

What do we learn about human nature from this parashah?

To begin, the story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us something important about the power of the group. It is difficult to imagine the hatred of Joseph reaching such a fever–pitch if there had not been a whole phalanx of brothers “egging” one another on. We see here the hatred and resentment of one who is different, an outsider, not a khevreman (i.e., “a regular guy”)—and rather conceited and narcissistic to boot. The Torah portrays the growth of their hatred and resentment, step by step. When Joseph is given the coat by his father (whether it was a striped coat [ketonet pasim], a coat with long-sleeves [pasim because it reached the pas, the palm of the hand] rather than a sleeveless shepherd’s jerkin, or the traditional “coat of many colors,” it clearly symbolized his father’s blatant favoritism: privilege, authority, seniority unwarranted by his birth-position, and perhaps a hint of future inheritance of his father’s mantle), we are told that his brothers hated him “and could not speak to him peaceably” (37:4). After the first dream, that of the sheaves bowing down to his sheaf, “they hated him, for his dreams and for his words” (v. 8)—i.e., for flaunting his own visions of grandeur and future rule over them. Finally, following the second dream, in which even the sun and moon—their parents, if not the entire cosmos—bow down to him, their hatred is compounded by jealousy (v. 11). (Jealousy seems here to be a more advanced stage of enmity than simple hatred, a point that requires further reflection and study.)

Interestingly, in the next and crucial scene, many days journey away from home, in the Dothan valley north of Shechem, where they conspire to kill him, the names of the individual brothers are barely mentioned. It is repeatedly ehav, “his brothers,” who say to one another “Look, that dreamer is coming… Let’s kill him and throw him into the pit… and see what becomes of his dreams” (vv. 19-20). It is as if the group has an identity, a mind of its own. One is reminded here of lynch mobs in the old South—or, for that matter, of mass behavior in all places and times. The late Bulgarian–Jewish writer and thinker Elias Canetti has written perceptively about mass movements in his book Crowds and Power, where he describes how, en masse, people lose their sense of individuality, of moral responsibility, even the power of thought and the ability to evaluate what is happening. Things that would be unthinkable to the individual not only become right, permissible, but even seem normal when in a group. The individual becomes caught up in its collective energy; he is also afraid to resist or say no, for fear of being ridiculed or, worse, of even becoming the next victim. The clever demagogue knows how to become the voice of the entire group, so that each one feels that the leader is speaking for all of them.

Only two of the brothers are mentioned here by name: Reuben—who appears throughout Genesis as a blundering, shlemielish type—makes an unsuccessful attempt to go “behind their backs” to save Joseph; while Judah, who at this stage still appears in a negative light, in fact saves Yosef’s life by proposing the “compromise” of selling him to the Ishmaelite caravan. This is an interesting foreshadowing of his strength of character, of which we shall have more to say later (God willing, I will elaborate upon this figure in two weeks, in HY for Vayigash).

Interestingly, the Torah nowhere explicitly states which among the brothers was the “negative leader” who proposed killing Yosef, although the Midrash concludes that it was Shimon who did so. There are a multitude of reasons: by process of elimination—it could not have been Reuven or Yehudah, nor could it have been one of the sons of the handmaidens/concubines, nor does it seem likely that it would have been one of the two younger sons of Leah; from his role in the massacre of Shechem; and, finally, by Joseph’s behavior towards him in Egypt, taking him as hostage while the others return to Canaan.

While Joseph’s brothers were hardly a “mass,” some of the mechanisms of mass behavior seem to have operated here as well. The majority of the brothers are depicted, both in the biblical text and in the midrash, as standing aside and accepting passively the decisions made by the leaders. Significantly, there are exactly ten brothers in this “gang.” Ten is well known as the minimum number for a minyan—the quorum required for public prayer, that represents a kind of minimal community; if you will, a microcosm of the Jewish people as a whole. Moreover, the Sages infer this number from a passage that speaks of another negative grouping: the ten spies who brought an evil report of the Land of Israel (representatives of each of the twelve tribes, with two dissenters, Hoshea/Joshua ben Nun and Kaleb ben Yefuneh), who are referred to as ‘edah ha-ra’ah ha-zot, “this evil congregation” (Num 14:27). One might well compare them to these ten, who also acted as a group to do evil—whether actively or, more likely, mostly passively, swept up by the guidance and instigation of the few.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this series, perhaps the key question in our age—in light of the bitter experience of social experiments made in the name of community during the twentieth century—is where and how to draw the line between the positive, constructive sense of community, and marshalling the power of the masses for totalitarian, destructive purposes. Communism, motivated by lofty ideals of human freedom and equality, quickly turned destructive; the revolution against a cruel and evil system of serfdom was accompanied by the doctrine of a “vanguard party” which always knew best, and from there to the dictatorship of a single ruthless individual. Along the way, it developed a form of dialectic reasoning that was used to justify every twist and turn of the party line, which for decades seemed to convince even (especially?) a certain kind of intellectual.

But many seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath-water, resisting all talk of community. People grew tired of being told constantly to think only of the collective and its needs. Thus, at a certain point many people in Israel became disenchanted with Zionism; the projects of nation building, of aliyah absorption, of Jewish cultural renewal, no longer seemed quite so interesting, and a counter-reaction of privatism began to be felt, expressed in the arts, in literature, in popular music—as well as in a cynical attitude towards anything that smacked of the collective, in the adoption of privatization à la Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher as an economic philosophy, and in the gradual collapse of collective life in many of the kibbutzim.

A second major theme of this parashah is that of trust and betrayal of trust. As mentioned earlier, we find lies, dishonesty, cover-ups, and ambiguous acts almost every step of the way, many if which we list above. I would only add here that mutual trust and truth is the basis for a truly healthy society. Individualistic ideologies are often accompanied by a high level of suspicion, of fear of the stranger, the assumption that everyone is lying. Perhaps it is part of the capitalist ethic—that each man’s home is his castle, and that “there is no society, only individuals.” From there, it is only a short step to the law of the jungle and to the idea that “Each man is a wolf to every other.” But one cannot place a policeman on every street corner, and the proliferation of written contracts and laws and lawyers cannot guarantee their enforcement; all it assures is that legal practice becomes a lucrative business, rather than a holy calling as it was to Hazal long ago. The traditional Jewish ethos is based on the presumption that people ordinarily tell the truth, and that lying is the exception, coupled with the idea that all but the most hardened and cynical will tell the truth when taking an oath in the name of God.

An aside: in two of our four stories, sexuality plays a central role—and with it an element of deception. Tamar dresses as a harlot to seduce Judah into fulfilling his duty as a levir; he in turn conceals the truth until forced into the open; and Potiphar’s wife tells a story that is the exact opposite of what happened in reality. It would seem that wherever there is sexual impropriety, there is shame and embarrassment, and from this there follow lies and cover ups—in ancient times as today. One of the leading stories on the news in Israel this past week has concerned a high-ranking police official, a hitherto leading candidate for the post of National Police Chief, suspected of sexual harassment and worse by a number of his female underlings—a story replete with claims, counter-claims, innuendos and rumors, polygraph exams, etc. This is an area in which concealment seems inevitable; acts that are customarily performed in the dark must remain “in the dark.”

Vayishlah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_11_20_archive/html/ as well as at December 2006, November 2007, and December 2008 and 2009.

The Encounter with the “Other”

The central theme of this week’s parashah, perhaps more or that any other in the Torah, is the encounter with the “Other”—or, to a term that is anachronistic in this context, the non-Jewish world. This is expressed, first of all, in the central drama of our reading: Jacob’s renewed meeting with his brother Esau after more than twenty years. This theme appears on three different levels: in Jacob’s concrete meeting with Esau, with anxious preparations, the sending of gifts, the division of his family and entourage into two”camps,” so as to minimize harm in the event of attack (Gen 32:7-8); second, according to a widely–quoted midrashic motif, in the encounter with the strange “man” or angel who struggles with him all night, who is seen as the “Prince” or heavenly avatar of Esau; and finally, in the final part of the parashah (Chapter 36), a detailed genealogy of Esau’s offspring and their clans, including the sequence of kings who ruled over Edom in ancient times (the death of these kings is an important motif in Zoharic literature, seen as a prefiguring the cosmic disaster known as the “breaking of the vessels”—but that is a whole other story).

The second major encounter with the “Other” is in the incident related in Chapter 34—the rape/courtship of Dinah by Shechem son of Hamor, and the reaction of Jacob’s sons to this event, ending in a massacre. I use the contradictory description advisedly: the text tells us that “he lay with her and humbled her” and immediately thereafter that “His heart was attached to Dinah… and he loved the maiden” (vv. 2-3)—so much so that he asked his father to take her for him as a wife; the protagonist, to rather understate matters, had a rather confused idea of how to treat a young woman.

A few comments about the meeting with Esau: Esau is such a powerful symbol in Jewish tradition that it is almost impossible to separate the mythic figure from the literal sense of the Biblical text, so we shall begin with the mythic level. Esau/Edom is seen as Rome, as the Christian Church, as European culture, as the “Goyish” world generally. The struggle with Esau, and with his angel, are seen as paradigmatic of the Jews’ relations with the Gentile world: “When the one rises the other falls; when the former falls, the latter rises.” It is a constant up-and-down struggle, without a conclusive victory on either side. The implication is that relations with the Gentile world are marked by constant struggle, in whose context notions of peace, of harmony, of mutual acceptance and respect, tolerance, cooperation and human fellowship, are no more than a pipe dream —a view seemingly confirmed by much of Jewish history.

I shall leave unanswered here the question: What about modernity? What about the contemporary world? A Christian Church(es) that speaks of reconciliation, of dialogue, of atonement for its own past sins (see Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews and all those that followed in his wake), of tolerance, that drafts liberal-spirited documents on Jewish–Christian relations, is something new and different in Jewish history. To this one must add the secular nature of the “post-modern” world and its indifference to “religious” differences, and an American Jewish community which is an unparalleled success story (if one discounts the “minor” matter of massive assimilation). Pessimists are quick to see the negative side (including attributing criticism of Israel’s policies to a new form of anti-Semitism), warning that, whenever Jews have become too comfortable in their Gentile host countries, sooner or later disaster strikes. The example of German Jewry is the classical paradigm: the murderous anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Third Reich followed a period of great cultural and social symbiosis of the nineteenth century, in which Jews felt themselves full participants in German life. Earlier, there was the “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain, which ended with the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula and, after the defeat of the Moors, the expulsion of all Jews in a new age of religious fanaticism and inquisition—and so on. In short, the idea of “a people dwelling apart,” of Jewish singularity, is deeply ingrained in our culture, making the Esau-Jacob model seemingly relevant even today. (This is not a purely theoretical issue: at what point does singularity turn into racism and xenophobia, e.g. viz. Arabs?).

Let us now leave aside the millennia of symbolic resonance, and the reading of the angel as the Prince of Esau. What may we infer from the actual encounter of the two brothers after so many years? We are told that Yaakov prepared for any eventuality: he sent gifts to Esau to assuage any vestigial hostility and to smooth the way for a peaceful meeting; he prepared himself logistically for the eventuality of battle, if need be; and he prayed to the Almighty for help in whatever went beyond human powers. The meeting itself was without any overt hostility, but may perhaps best be described as “correct”: polite, with the minimal expected gestures of friendship, but avoiding of any real closeness. Esau’s suggestion that they travel together for a while is promptly rejected by Jacob on the grounds that he could not travel as quickly as Esau would doubtless like, being burdened by thousands of sheep and other animals (33:12-17).

The second key incident in the parashah is that of the Rape of Dinah. I have already mentioned the ambiguity —perhaps typical of what is today referred to as abusive husbands—of Shechem’s behavior. The invitation to assimilation and intermarriage may be read as paradigmatic. “We shall give you our daughters, and take your daughters, and we shall dwell together and be one people” (34:16). On the face of it, a reasonable, even congenial offer: what more could two neighboring clans want then to unite forces and resources and cement their alliance through marriages (like neighboring royal houses, or for that matter Hasidic dynasties). Yet instead Jacob’s sons use a cruel ruse to outwit them: they pretend to accept the offer, insisting only that they be circumcised as they themselves are—a ritual represented as no more than a tribal custom; then, taking advantage of their weakness, they slaughter them all. It is difficult to view this scene as other than barbaric—as shown by the elderly patriarch Yaakov’s expression of disgust. But two points: one, Jacob’s family saw only the shame and affront of the rape, and not the youth’s expression of real love for the maiden, nor the offer of friendship and merger that seemed to follow. Secondly, in any event the feeling gained is that the objection to intermarriage, assimilation, and becoming one with people who did not share their basic beliefs and values and sense of being covenanted to God, is a basic component of Jewish/Israelite identity as far back as then.

Excursus: The Struggle at the Ford of Yabbok

How else can the encounter with the mysterious figure at the Yabbok Crossing be read, other than as an apotheosis of Esau? Perhaps as a figure representing Death (a popular medieval treatise on the passage through death and to the Other World is entitled Ma’avar Yabok)? As his own astral self? As his own unconscious, past / present / future (a la Scrooge in Dicken’s Christmas Carol—which notwithstanding its title is perhaps the best “Mussar shmoose” I’ve ever read)? It is pregnant with possibilities.

But eschewing the more far-out, “New Age” suggestions essayed above, and attempting to read the peshat, it occurred to me that this encounter closes a certain circle. When Ya’akov left the Land of Israel, alone, he had an encounter with God in the Ladder vision. Now, on the eve of his return (could the Yabbok have been a certain border of the Land, in some views?), left alone for one night, he again encounters God—or at least a messenger who speaks in the name of God. (See James Kugel’s The God of Old on how the figure of the Divine often segues between a human being, an angel, and God Himself). The angel does not disclose his name, but Yaakov responds by saying “I have seen God face to face” and calls the place Peniel, the face of God” (32:30). Moreover, the change of name from Ya’akov to Yisrael is repeated almost verbatim a bit later (35:9-10) in a direct conversation with God.

But what does this struggle mean, per se? Why wrestle with God, or His emissary? On the simplest level, I see this as a certain test of manhood; the ability to fight, when necessary, is part of what it means to be a man; indeed, it is a constant motif of boyhood, one of the ways boys test themselves and learn to become men. To put things bluntly: the Jacob who ran away years earlier was something of a nerd, a “Momma’s boy” whose arsenal of defending himself consisted either of hiding behind stronger, “adult” figures (i.e., his mother), guile to the point of deceit, or flight. On the occasion of this nocturnal encounter, he is about to reencounter his childhood nemesis, who happens to be his own brother, a hyper-masculine figure (a hirsute figure; “one who knows the hunt, a man of the field”), who doubtless frightened him no end as a child. But now he, Jacob, is himself a mature, adult man: one who has known women and sired almost a dozen children; has had experience with hard work in the field and with animal husbandry, with the vicissitudes of (polygamous) marriage, and dealing with crooked people. Now he has to prove himself in one final task, in the specifically masculine arena of hand-to-hand physical combat—that is, the language of Esau. And he realizes that the feared Esau is a man, like himself—no more, and no less—and that he is able to hold his own against him. Symbolically, the struggle ends in a draw—he does not win, nor does he lose, but he manages to hold his own. He is even slightly injured and goes away limping—but that, too, is part of life, with which one may live. (Indeed, this fact was so important that it became the basis for a mitzvah given to his descendants in perpetuity—not to eat the sciatic nerve.)