Many of the stories of the Jewish people deal with collective experiences, as do most of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar. Pesach commemorates the Exodus; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah; Sukkot remembers the desert wanderings. Chanukah and Purim narrate stories of deliverance for the community. With so much emphasis on the collective, the stories of Jewish tradition that focus on personal and individual experiences stand out sharply.
Among the better-known stories of personal religious experience is in this week's portion. Jacob is on his way back to the land of Canaan, where he will soon encounter his estranged brother Esau, after many years of separation. We read of his nocturnal struggle with an unknown and unnamed adversary.
Like so many other enigmatic biblical stories, where a certain imprecision seems to rest at the core, this story has been flattened out into a common reading, being known most-familiarly (and incorrectly) as "Jacob's wrestling with the angel."
Traditional, as well as contemporary, commentators have differed as to the identity of the adversary. The narrative first calls him a "man" which, as Robert Alter notes in his commentary titled The Five Books of Moses, is the way Jacob first encounters him. But dawn breaks. If Jacob has not yet discerned that he is striving with something, or someone, more than just a "man," the adversary's entreaty, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking," suggests something supernatural is at play.
The Hebrew word for angel (malakh) is actually not used in the story. The adversary re-names Jacob as "Israel," which is a play upon the word meaning "struggled with Elohim," and Jacob names the place of the struggle Peni-el, "meaning 'I have seen Elohim face-to-face and I came out alive.' "
The word Elohim can mean God, or gods, or divine being(s). It is not clear whether the adversary's usage is self-referential ("I am Elohim and you have striven with me and prevailed") or summative ("You have struggled with God during your entire lifetime and have nonetheless prevailed").
Rabbinic legend usually represents the adversary as one of three personae. Most common is as Samael (Satan), the patron angel (of course!) of Esau. The struggle is, thus, a retrospective on the adolescent anguish between the brothers and an overture to what Jacob anticipates to be a confrontation with Esau.
A second understanding is that the adversary is an agent of God and is, perhaps, testing Jacob in anticipation of his encounter with Esau. Such an Elohim would know what Jacob does not yet know — that his encounter with Esau will be benign. The night fight in this reading becomes a prelude to Jacob earning his additional name of Israel.
A third reading is more psychological, and suggests that Jacob is struggling with himself in his "dark night of the soul." Jacob stands at the same river he crossed many years ago in flight. He is engaged in what psychologist Erik Erikson might call the struggle between "ego integrity and despair"; its outcome is contingent on being able to take one's personal history and have it make sense as a unified story.
Of these interpretations, the one that often resonates most for contemporary Jews is the third. The struggle is an internal one, and the adversary is a stand-in for the discordant parts of life that all people struggle to accept. Perhaps that's why this story continues to retain its power.
In the book Five Cities of Refuge, co-written with David Mamet, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches about this story: "Commentators have long disagreed over the identity of the unnamed wrestler and over just whose agent he was. Did he serve God … or does he work for Esau, the enemy, the dark side? The correct answer may be 'Yes, to both of the above.' …
This is Jacob's resolution, his transformation into Israel: That God is not just one or the other. God is both.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.