Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
o Yaakov prepares to confront his brother Eisav by sending messengers to express his submissiveness; by preparing gifts for him; by preparing to do battle and by praying to God
o At night and all alone, Yaakov wrestles with an Ish and experiences a dislocation of his hip socket, when the Ish touches him there in an unsuccessful attempt to prevail. Yaakov is informed that he will be given an additional name, Yisrael, because he successfully fought with this force from God and with men. The sun rises and Yaakov limps
o Yaakov and Eisav meet, embrace, appear to reconcile and then part ways
o Yaakov’s only daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, son of Chamor, prince of a local clan. When Chamor proposes to Yaakov that Shechem be permitted to marry Dinah, Yaakov’s son agree, but only on the condition that the locals are circumcised. Chamor agrees and on the third day after the circumcision, when the people were in pain, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers from the same mother Leah, murder all the males. When Yaakov objects to this behavior, the brothers respond “Could we allow them to make our sister into a harlot?”
o Yaakov journeys to Beis-Ail and, as predicted by Ish, is given another name , Yisrael, by God
o While giving birth to Binyamin, Rachel dies and is buried on the road to Beis-Lechem
o Following a practice among ancient Eastern heir-apparent to take possession of his father’s wives, Reuven lies down with his father’s concubine Bilhah
o Listing of Yaakov’s descendants
o Yitzchak dies at 180 years and is buried by his sons Eisav and Yaakov
o Eisav’ s descendants
o Listing of the Kings of Edom.
Yaakov and the Ish: dream or reality?
Fearful that when they meet the next day Eisav will murder him and his family for his having stolen the Blessings from under him, Yaakov prays to God but gets no response. That night, after organizing into groups and moving both his family and the large number of animals he plans give as a gift , Yaakov crosses the ford of the Yabbok river and falls asleep alone and afraid. To the ancients, crossing a river symbolized going forward to a new experience. It was also believed that rivers were infested by demons.
An Ish appears and wrestles with him all night and, when it realizes it cannot prevail, grabs Yaakov in the hollow of his thigh knocking his thigh out of joint. When Ish pleads to be let go since the dawn is breaking, Yaakov responds that he will only free him if he gives him a blessing. After asking his name (i.e., his essence, his persona, how he perceives himself) Ish says that Yaakov will be given another name, Yisrael, sometime in the future. Wanting to know whom to thank for the Blessing, Yaakov asks Ish to identify himself but gets no response, only another Bracha. Awake, and with the sun shining, Yaakov realizes that he has perceived God and was saved. To commemorate this experience and realization Yaakov, limping from the nighttime injury, names the place Peniel (Face of God).The text concludes “to this day the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid H’anawsheh (sinew of the hip --sciatic nerve) which is on the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.”
How are we to understand this incident and its meaning(s)? Who is Ish? Did the wrestling really happen or was it a dream or vision? Why the detail on Ish’s fighting dirty by “hitting below the belt”? Why did Yaakov need to get a second name? Why the focus on Gid H’anawsheh? Who instituted the prohibition and for what reason?
It is noteworthy that with the passage of time, the nature of dreams in the Torah changes. Initially, dreams were a vehicle for God to communicate with Man. But starting with Yaakov’s earlier dream of angels going up and then going down a ladder, dreams become expressions of internal, unconscious conflicts filled with extensive symbolism needing interpretation.[Interestingly, in the “ladder” dream, climbing also requires use of sciatic nerve.]
Rambam opines that any verse in the Torah that has an incident involving angels or angelic speech is a dream or prophetic vision. Yaakov was tormented, racked with guilt and fearful of what his brother Eisav would do when they met the next day. Agitation during a dream, tossing and turning, physical exhaustion from the moving during the day combined to create physical injury. Gersonidies (Ralbag) explains that “that when somebody in his sleep experiences a painful sensation…he may dream being locked in struggle with an opponent who causes, by striking him, a twinge in the sore part of his body. From transferring his kin and kit [possessions] over the wadi and from being in the water, Yaakov suffered sciatic twinges in his sleep.” Abravanel adds that “…things that become so fixed in the mind…leave a physical effect”. Psychosomatic injuries are the body’s response to unconscious desires or conflict.
The Midrash identifies Ish as the Patron of Eisav, embodying his nation’s unique culture, strength and attributes. During the dark, lonely depressing night Yaakov struggles with his guilt over his treatment of Eisav some 20 years earlier. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ view is that during his entire life Yaakov wanted to be Eisav who was older, who was strong, who was mature and who was his father’s favorite. That night, Yaakov “wrestles with himself and finally throws off the image of Esau that he has carried with him all these years as the person he wants to be”. A psychological transformation process occurs through the night until recognition of who he really is fully “dawns” on him. It is only when the sun shines (when there is clarity and optimism) that Yaakov is able to face the Truth (Panim el Panim) in himself. Yaakov then returns the material blessings to Eisav by gifting him a large variety and number of livestock.
There is a universal lesson here, too. Ish is the dark, selfish side of us all including Yaakov --the Yeitzer Harah. The active internal battle sets the stage for meaningful change. One goes from the nighttime/darkness of struggle to the sunshine of self-awareness, change for the better and victory over the Yeitzer Harah.
Benno Jacob adds that, ironically, it was the physical weakening of Yaakov (limping, hobbling along with difficulty, appearing like a defeated man) that saved him from the hateful wrath of his brother Eisav. Seeing Yaakov in this condition brought on a change in Eisav (who was thirsting for revenge) prompting him instead to run , embrace, kiss then weep together with his younger brother.
Ish also can be understood as the embodiment of the National Character of Edom. It is the battle of the cultures: ours versus theirs. The struggle in the dream is a forerunner of the Jewish people’s constant battle--for both physical survival and ethical behavior-- against surrounding cultures. The yerech is used in a number of places in the Torah as a euphemism for genitals. The enemies of Israel in every generation use every means at their disposal to destroy us by murdering us and by crushing our ability to procreate, to survive and to flourish.
On eating the Gid H’anawsheh
The source for the prohibition is its inclusion with all the other commandments promulgated at Mount Sinai. It is presented here for its historical context. (The same applies to the Mitzvah of Bris.) “…the children of Yisrael do not eat” means, according to Radak, that it was Yaakov’s sons who immediately took it upon themselves to adopt this rule as a sign of respect for their injured father or, according to others , for their failure to respect their father.
Rabbi B. S. Jacobson views the prohibition of eating the animal’s thigh with the sciatic nerve, a mainspring of locomotion, as a metaphor for our need to avoid improper and impure behavior in our lives.
Rav Avigdor Miller thinks that the prohibition serves as a reminder that letting down one’s guard in fighting Evil for even one minute (as Yaakov did) can have painful consequences.
Sandra Gottesman opines that the prohibition reminds us that throughout our history we have come so close to death at the hands of our enemies, but were saved by God and given the opportunity to again “walk in the sunshine” (i.e., be optimistic). Similarly, Rashbam points out how we were given a lighter sentence: Ish, the embodiment of Evil, sought to castrate but instead “only” caused injury to the area.
Some think that “you are what you eat” is the operative idea. Ish seems to have touched the most vulnerable part of Yaakov. Eating that body part would remind us of our weaknesses and stir up an internal state of negativity.
Yehuda Valladares observes that we do not want to ingest “weakness”. Bnai Yisrael should not consume and absorb some of the crooked behavior associated with the name (and person) Yaakov.
Marty Langert thinks the Torah did not want us to eat anything having to do with displacement (of hip from socket) in that it would stir up the memory of the many displacements, expulsions and exiles that the Jewish people endured over the course of time.