Well, it happened. Recently, my family and I felt something we had not felt in two years: cold. We’re finally back on the mainland, in a place where leaves turn, leaves fall, clouds form, it rains, it sleets, it hails, it snows. The wind is crisp, the mornings are chilly, and we don’t have to mow our lawn for a few months. We are experiencing a transition in the weather, and with that parallels a transition of how we live our lives. It’s been almost six months here in West Lafayette, and we’re getting to the point where people have stopped asking us if we’re “settled.” We’re here. We’re getting used to being Midwesterners, no longer suffering from sticker-shock when we see how low your grocery prices are, no longer jarred by how genuine and kind everyone is. Instead, we’re bundling up with our coats, scarves, hats, and gloves, turning on the heat in our cars for the first time, and driving to places that are quickly becoming familiar.
This week, I thought about transitions a lot, and that’s probably because I knew this week’s Torah portion was Vayishlach, the well-known tale of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger by the banks of the river, transitioning, transforming from Jacob to Israel, from trickster to patriarch, from enemy to friend. In our parsha, Jacob camps alone at the banks of the river, the evening before meeting his estranged brother, Esau. A mysterious person or divine being visits him in the middle of the night and wrestles with him. Jacob, though injured, eventually pins the stranger and wins the wrestling match. The stranger, who insists that he must leave at dawn, renames Jacob “Israel,” because he had “striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.”
I’ve studied this parsha thoroughly over the years. I could tell you what the Midrash says, and what the medieval commentators thought. But, let’s face it, how many times have we heard it? We’ve heard that Jacob wrestled with himself, that Jacob wrestled with an angel, that Jacob wrestled with Esau. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great stories. But, eventually, a rabbi (even a young rabbi) gets tired of telling the same interpretations, and the congregations get tired of hearing them.
Some of you may not know that part of a successful rabbi’s weekly schedule is about two hours of solitary study, when rabbis can learn about the newest scholarship, read books with different interpretations, different philosophies, in order to stay relevant. This week, during that time, I was determined to find a different interpretation of the Jacob wrestling story, something that challenged my preconceived notions and challenged the rabbis and commentators. And, I found one, compiled by Nahum Sarna, the father of Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna. Nahum was a biblical scholar who passed away in 2005. He wrote incredible books including Understanding Genesis; he contributed to the first two volumes of the JPS Torah Commentary, and he actually was part of the translation team for the Jewish Publication Society, when they translated the Tanakh. Sarna not only wrote whole commentaries verse by verse on the Torah, but also wrote what he called excursuses on certain themes or events that needed more explanation. And wouldn’t you know it, I found Sarna’s excursus called “Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel.” And wow, did I find some cool stuff, I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
So first of all, it turns out that in Near Eastern legends, rivers were dangerous places. There is a wealth of stories and legends from other cultures about river-spirits that fight with humans who seek to cross their homes, kind of like trolls that guard a bridge. There’s also many legends about river demons, that only come out at night, and must disappear at dawn. There are even Near Eastern legends that tell us that if you hold on to a demon long enough, you can bend it to your will. Now, as Sarna explains, these Near Eastern legends or motifs were “obviously incompatible with Israelite monotheism.” Like so many other stories incorporated into our Torah, they had to be changed, edited, and transformed in order to fit into Israelite theology. This makes sense, as any culture that incorporates other culture’s legends has to make them fit into their world. So the Torah author had to make some changes. In our story, the stranger, unlike the river-spirit, doesn’t stop Jacob from crossing the river, nor does he take the form of what river-spirits usually took—animals, serpents, monsters, etc. Jacob, himself, is the target, and he is injured, unlike in other Near Eastern legends, in which “the spirit is the one who is punished and wounded by the human.” Sarna also notes that the stranger who wrestles with Jacob cannot be a demon, because he blesses Jacob, and demons giving a blessing is what Sarna calls, “unexampled and inconceivable in a biblical context.”
So, what is our story? “In short,” Sarna explains, “the occurrence of this incident by a river and the sudden attack by a mysterious assailant indicate that popular folk tales provided the literary model for this biblical narrative. But a careful and radical purging of all elements offensive to the monotheism of Israel has taken place.” Cool, right?
But wait, there’s more! If we focus on the location of the incident with Jacob, we learn a lot more. The wrestling with the stranger takes place at what is called the Jabbok river. If you do a search of this river in the Tanakh, you’ll find that it’s mentioned a few times, most notably in Joshua, and Judges, wherein we are told the Jabbok river is the frontier of the land of Canaan. It’s the dividing line from being out, and in of the holy land. So, is it possible the mysterious stranger attempted to stop Jacob from entering the land that would, in the future, be given as a gift to the Israelites, and would be the home of the great Temple? Who would want to prevent Jacob from doing so? Scholars seem to think that it is not Esau himself, but what would have been known as the “celestial patron of Esau.” In the Near Eastern legends, each culture, each society, had its own divine protector, a celestial patron, that would protect them. If you read on in the Tanakh, you’ll know that the descendants of Esau eventually become a nation-state known as Edom, a sworn enemy of the Israelites. There are battles with Edom in Numbers, Joshua, Judges, and 1st Kings; Moses fights them, Joshua, David, and Solomon.
So, imagine for a moment that the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger was inserted later, after Israel and Edom became enemies. At a time when there was a great deal of antagonism between these two nations, fighting over land which each thought was their own—the Israelites believing the land was given to them by God, and the Edomites believing their land was protected by their god. When you read it this way, it makes a great deal more sense, doesn’t it? The episode of Jacob wrestling with the celestial patron of Esau-Edom is a foreshadowing of the upcoming confrontations and antagonism between the two peoples, the Israelites and the Edomites. As Sarna explains,
It is this antagonism that makes the blessing, the change of the name from Jacob to Israel, all the more meaningful. This act constitutes Esau’s acquiescence in Jacob’s right to the paternal blessings. It acknowledges the promised land to be Jacob’s rightful heritage. It is entirely appropriate that the new name, that by which the future nation is to be known [Israel], should be bestowed at the frontier, just as the patriarch overcomes his opponent and can enter that land unhindered.
In other words, it is entirely possible that the author of this story took the Near Eastern river-spirit motif, changing it around to fit with Israelite monotheism, in order to put in the Torah that not only will the Israelites beat the Edomites, but that they already gave up their right to the land when Jacob, the patron of Israel, defeated the celestial patron of Esau. History, dear friends, has always been written by the victor. So Jacob’s transformation to the name Israel has nothing to do with wrestling with God, but rather was the author’s way of telling us that Jacob represents Israel, Esau represents Edom, and that Israel will prevail over its enemies.
So, during this time of transition, when we read about a transition of our patriarch Jacob, I thought it a good idea to remind ourselves that sometimes we’ve heard a story 1,000 times over and interpreted it in a way that we’ve always been told, only to learn down the line that maybe there’s another interpretation, maybe there’s things we don’t know, maybe we’ve missed the point of the story altogether. Now that’s a transitional point in our lives if I say so myself. When I read about this different interpretation, this relatively newer interpretation of the Jacob story, I was floored. I said out-loud in my office, “well I’ve been teaching this all wrong for years!” To be fair, what I was teaching before and what other rabbis have taught isn’t wrong; it’s just a different point of view. When we see things from a new point of view, we grow, we learn, we transition. So as the skies darken and the leaves fall, and just as we see our community through the transitional beauty of Fall and Winter, I hope tonight you can look upon this old story, a story that has been read thousands of time, from a different, and beautiful, point of view.