Struggling with God

November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

There is a saying: at twenty-five you have the face that you inherit, but at fifty you have the face that you deserve.  I cannot tell you whether that is precisely true, but it does seem to contain some wisdom.

From midlife onward your life – and your face – both become the sum of your choices. That’s why 25-year high school reunions are so interesting – and so galling. You find out whether those kids you knew then continued on the same trajectory or not, and you learn whether that direction was profitable or not. Some are predictable, and some are a complete surprise.

Jacob is at that point in his life – somewhere in midlife, learning what the aggregate of his life-choices might mean. He has left the service of Laban, having outgrown his position as a servant-shepherd, ready to take on a new role. He is smart and capable, able to serve as the leader of his own clan – so why, he wonders, is he still working for a servant’s wages? No, the time has come for him to take his leave, along with his entourage, which has in fact become a rather large caravan.

But that departure from Laban’s household also means that it is time to return home to face his demons there. And he is worried: going home requires that he face his twin brother, the very same one who vowed to kill him all those years ago. His brother never was one to let bygones be bygones, so this homecoming could be a genuine problem. Jacob is afraid.

Worried about the outcome, Jacob sends messengers ahead of his caravan to send greetings to his brother Esau. But they return to him with the message that his brother is coming out to meet him in person.

That’s not good.

And, the messengers explain, Esau has 400 men with him.

That’s not good either.

Jacob fears the worst. And so he prays. His prayer to God at that moment reflects his sense of desperation:

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.[1]

Jacob is afraid, genuinely afraid.

But his prayer is not just an expression of fear; it is also a realization. As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, his prayer also reflects a sudden insight, an insight gained in the midst of his prayer.

Jacob suddenly realizes the emotional cost of what he had done all those years ago.

As she writes: “Perhaps the suffering of the twenty years’ servitude and exile with Laban, the deceptions practiced on him there had not driven home to him the full significance of the deed of ‘thy brother came with guile.’”[2]

At the time of his deceit, he had not really understood how his behavior would hurt his brother; now, as a grown man, having been tricked himself, he has insight. Pausing to reflect on these experiences, he finally understands the shame and humiliation that his brother felt.

As Leibowitz continues, “Perhaps he still justified the immoral deed by the justness of the end, given the seal of approval in his father’s confirmation of the blessing after the deed: ‘yea, and he shall be blessed.’ He had still not experienced even the shadow of a doubt regarding the rightness of his conduct. Only now through his prayer he experienced a re-appraisal of his conduct.”[3] And he realizes that he has been unworthy of all of the blessings he has received.

And, it suddenly dawns on him just what it must have meant to his brother to have been tricked like that. And he suddenly understands what he, himself, has done. And now, as a result, he has become a fully ethical being.

Hermann Cohen, the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher from the turn of the last century, argues that genuine morality is born when we understand how the other person feels. Up until that moment, we are not truly making ethical choices: we have no sense of why a given action – such as tricking your brother – might be wrong or unethical. It is when we realize he hurts just like I do that we are able to make moral choices.

In fact, all of ethics can be summed up as follows: I should not hurt him because he hurts just like I do.

But Jacob is like that: sometimes he is ethical, sometimes not; sometimes he is responsible, sometimes not. Sometimes he is able to transcend himself, to gain genuine insight and recognize his part in the drama and act ethically – and sometimes not.

This division within him is evident in one of the most famous passages in the narrative of his life. After sending his clan across the Jordan River, he sleeps alone on the other bank.

Why is he alone? It does not say. Maybe he thinks that if Esau attacks both of the camps at night, he is more likely to survive if he is out on his own. It does not occur to him that his family might want the reassurance of his presence in the camp.

While Jacob is alone, he is attacked. Who is this man who attacks? Why does he attack? What does he want?

When he [the attacker] saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.

Why exactly does this attacker tear the ligaments in Jacob’s hip? It seems like something more than bad sportsmanship. Either that, or angels are sore losers.

However, it appears that the attacker fully intended to kill him. The attacker would have to settle for just wounding him, however, because that is the best he can do. In fact, as the struggle continues, the attacker has to ask Jacob to release him:

Then he [the attacker] said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

This is our first hint that this being might not be a man after all.

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky...

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky: Jákob zápasící s andělem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”[4]

Why is it that this being won’t give his name? And who is it?

One possibility, proposed by the rabbinic literature, is that this man is an angel, the prince of Esau. In other words, this angel is what we might call the guardian angel of the people of Esau, and it was Esau’s and Jacob’s angels engaged in battle.  A cosmic battle takes place before the two brothers meet; its significance is to foreshadow that Jacob’s people will eventually win, but at great cost. As Ramban explains: “There were other generations who did such things to us and worse than this. But we endured all and it passed us by…”[5] Ramban and the Midrashic literature would like to have us think that God sees to it that Israel always wins.

But there are problems here with this reading. For one thing, God doesn’t ever give him that promise. And frankly, I don’t think that we should bet on that.

Another possibility – proposed to me by one of my Bible professors some years ago – is that the attacker is actually Esau himself, come to do battle with Jacob. That’s why, when they reunite, Jacob exclaims, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He had thought he was wrestling with an angel, only to discover that angel was really Esau. His brother did indeed try to kill him, just as he had vowed to do, but when he realized that he could not do so he gave him a blessing instead.

There is a certain logic to this reading, in the sense that it allows Esau to fulfill his vow to attempt to kill him, and it resolves the tension of Jacob’s stolen blessing: now Jacob receives the blessing directly from his brother, and the blessing is no longer considered a theft.

It is an excellent suggestion. But in recent months, I have been less enamored of this kind of reading. I find, of course, that each time that I encounter the text, it has something different to say.

This year I am finding a lot of meaning in the tension itself; I have felt a greater appreciation for the Bible’s willingness to leave some things unresolved, am I am a little less willing to collapse the text into a neat resolution.

The narrative does wind on itself, like some sort of DNA helix: certain things get repeated, or handed down, sometimes in precisely the same way; yet in each new version there is also something novel and unexpected.

This episode is one of those repetitions. Jacob yet again, in the hours of darkness, is faced with a deception: In this case, he is wrestling someone who will not tell him his name or his reasons for being there. But this time, when asked, Jacob gives his own name, and gives it honestly: Jacob, the supplanter. The one who will trick you in order to take your place.

And the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Israel literally means he-who-struggles-with-God. The root of the verb is ‘to struggle or contend with’ – but interestingly, etymologically the root is also related to the root for ‘dominate’ or ‘reign’.[6]  So there is a very real sense of struggle here: which will be dominant, the desires of this unruly man, or the will of God?

And so the episode with the angel tells him: No longer are you the one who supplants your brother. No longer are you the one who engages in tricks. You are now the one who struggles with God, with ethics, with all that is high and holy in deciding what to do.

Of course, you are also always still Jacob, the one who seeks the shortcut or the quick win. Yet you are also capable of becoming someone much grander, much greater than that: You are Israel, the one who struggles to transcend himself.

And that lesson has resonance: We all struggle with our lesser nature. We all have to make an effort to choose well, to transcend ourselves. And in that sense, we too are Israel.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling


[1] This is the JPS translation.

[2] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, translated by Aryeh Newman, p. 364.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is the JPS translation.

[5] As quoted in Leibowitz, pp. 369-70.

[6] According to the Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein (Jerusalem: Carta, on behalf of the University of Haifa, 1987): sin-resh-hey is ‘to fight, strive, contend’ (p. 681) and sin-resh-resh is ‘to rule, reign, dominate’ (p. 684). See also the entry for ‘Israel’ on p. 266.

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§ 2 Responses to Struggling with God

  • rose arndt says:

    Rabbi Kari, Wow, I found you….this is a person from your past, way, way
    back in the 1970’s. I’m Rose Arndt use to live in Scripps Ranch….
    close friends of your Dad & Mom….was married to Norm Arndt…
    have 2 kids…Jimmy & Cori…..I now live in Georgia near
    my daughter.
    Norm told me you were a Rabbi….so proud of you….many, many
    blessings to you & your family.

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