Judaism is often marked by collective spiritual experience. Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt; Sukkot remembers the desert wanderings; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. Chanukah and Purim narrate stories of collective deliverance.
With so much emphasis on the collective, the stories in Jewish tradition about personal and spiritual experiences stand out sharply. One such story occurs in this week’s Torah portion.
The patriarch Jacob is on his way back to the land of Canaan. He will soon encounter his estranged brother Esau. But first, alone in the night, Jacob encounters an unknown and unnamed adversary.
Traditional as well as contemporary commentators have differed as to the identity of the adversary. The narrative first calls him an “ish” (man), which, as Robert Alter notes in his commentary “The Five Books of Moses,” is the way Jacob first understands the identity of the one attacking 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.
As a condition of releasing his enemy, Jacob demands a blessing, which curiously comes in the form of being given a new name: Israel. “Israel” is punned as a play on “struggled with God,” and Jacob names the place of his singular encounter Peni-el: “I have seen God face-to-face and I came out alive.’” It is nicely ambiguous whether the adversary’s usage is incidental — “I am God, and you have striven with me this night and prevailed” — or cumulative — “You, Jacob, have struggled with God during your entire lifetime and have managed to prevail.”
Rabbinic legend commonly represents the adversary as one of three personas. One is Samael (Satan), the patron angel (of course!) of Esau. The night struggle would then be a retrospective on the adolescent anguish between Jacob and Esau, and an overture to what Jacob anticipates will be an angry confrontation with his brother.
A second understanding is that the adversary is an agent of God, and is perhaps testing or toughening up Jacob in anticipation of his encounter with Esau. Such an agent would presumably 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 — he will meet his brother under a new name.
A third reading suggests that Jacob is struggling with himself in his “dark night of the soul.” Jacob stands at the same river he crossed over many years ago in fright while in flight. What has he learned? How has he changed? Can he connect the “Jacob” he once was with the “Israel” he has emerged to become?
Like many of us, Jacob’s most consequential struggle is an internal one. The unnamed adversary is a symbol of the discordant, dissonant, and disturbing moments of life that so often come upon us unexpectedly. Each of us struggles to integrate, or to overcome, or to accept such moments. But with wisdom comes the acceptance that they cannot be avoided or evaded.
Out of such wisdom, each of us can hope to integrate the experiences of life, the benign and the challenging, and, like Jacob, we too may strive to prevail.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Wynnewood, Pa.