WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT VA-YISHLACH 5771/2010
JACOB’S DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
And Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break off dawn. And he saw that he could not overcome him, and struck the socket of Jacob’s hip as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Send me away, for the dawn has broken.” And he [Jacob] said: “I shall not send you away unless you bless me.” And he said onto him: “What is your name?” And he said: “Jacob”. And he [the “man”] said: “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have overcome.” And he blessed him there. And Jacob named the place Peni’el, since [he declared]: “I have seen God face to face, and my life was saved.” And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on account of his hip. Therefore the children of Israel are not to eat the displaced sinew on the hip pocket to this day (Genesis 32:25-33).
Our text is the description of events that precede the encounter between Jacob and Esau after twenty years of separation. From their earliest youth the relationship of the brothers was deeply troubled. Jacob’s name aptly described his character. The name Ya’akov (Jacob) means “supplanter”. It derives from the Hebrew root ekev-“a heel.” Jacob is a supplanter, in that he grabs his sibling rival by the heel, seeking, literally to bring him down. He twice deceives his brother, first by extorting his birthright, and then by duplicitously acquiring the special blessing meant for Esau. Infuriated by the two-fold deception, Esau vows to kill Jacob after their father’s death and Jacob is forced into exile to save his life.
En route to the home of his uncle Laban, Jacob has an inspiring vision of God, and is assured of his eventual safe return. Jacob, in fact, appears to make a deal with God, promising his faith in exchange for divine protection.
In exile, too, he is compelled to live by his wits, needing to outsmart his devious father-in-law in order to amass his own fortune, and to leave with his wives, children and entourage.
Significantly, in the same way as he begins his exile as a refugee from his brother, so he ends up as a refugee from his father-in-law. Although he has survived by his cunning and his ability to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents, he always remains a displaced person.
Believing that Esau still harbors hatred for him, and hearing that Esau is coming to confront him with 400 men, Jacob prepares for the worst. He divides his camp in two, so that if Esau should attack one part, the other would escape.
On the night before the dreaded confrontation, Jacob remains alone, preparing himself for what will happen. It is then that he has the strange encounter with the “man” who wrestles with him in the darkness of the night.
Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:32) suggests that there was no actual physical encounter; Jacob’s struggle with “the man” was a vision. Abravanel, citing Gersonides, agrees with Maimonides, and suggests that the hip injury was the physical consequence of the unconscious struggle–in fact, the traumatic aftermath of the terrifying vision. Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, in similar vein, suggests that the encounter was the inner struggle between Jacob’s spiritual potential and his material nature (the “man”).
Our text raises a number of vexing questions, many of which are touched upon by the traditional commentators whom we have sampled. Why did Jacob remain alone on that dark night of the soul preceding his anticipated encounter with Esau? Surely the situation called for the protective presence of trained fighters and for the counsel of trusted advisors. Who, indeed, was the mysterious “man” with whom Jacob struggled? Why is Scripture, usually so clear, so obscure in this passage. Why does the Torah disclose that the sun rose for him? Did he alone merit the dawning of a new day? Why was Jacob wounded just when it appeared that he was victorious? Why would he demand a blessing from the adversary who had tried to kill them, and from whom he might reasonably have expected precisely the opposite? Jacob was not the first biblical name to be changed; Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah. In these instances, however, the original names are not used again. This is not the case here; Jacob continues to be called Jacob. He is referred to as Israel with relative infrequency. What, then, is the significance of a change of name, which is not to be used consistently in the future–in contrast with Abraham and Sarah?
Existentialist thinkers have identified four ultimate concerns, shared by most human beings: the fear of death, the fear of isolation, the fear of freedom and the fear of meaninglessness. It would seem that all of these ultimate concerns are at play in our scriptural passage. And Jacob was very frightened (Heb: va-yira me’od) and it distressed him (va-yetzer lo) (Genesis 32:8). “Fear” and “distress” are not necessarily only synonyms, and merely employed for emphasis, as some have suggested. The word me’od (very) itself provides such emphasis. Nor do they necessarily point to two different sources of discomfort, as some commentators have suggested. On the contrary, it appears that Jacob’s distress (va-yetzer lo) is a consequence of this terrible dread, as was indeed suggested by Da’at Zekenim.
However a phenomenological analysis of Jacob’s distress goes far beyond the merely causal relationship between fear and distress which the Da’at Zekenim. suggests. The word va-yetzer derives from the same Hebrew root as the word tzar, which means, “narrow”, “constricted,” “confined.” It is as if the Torah is attempting to convey exactly how Jacob experiences his fear. The term va-yetzer lo evokes a sense of helpless thrownness into the world, a condition in which our present is determined by our past, and we despair of having a future. “The world… narrows existence down to fewer and fewer possibilities and even imprisons it, to a point where existence is finally overpowered and nullified by it.” (Binswanger). This experience is precisely what Jacob undergoes. He is constricted, in a hole, hollow, in dread of nullification, of becoming a no-thing..
Jacob had customarily attempted to deal with situations of distress through tricks and stratagems–-his exploitation of Esau’s weakness to gain his birthright, his deception of his father to gain his brother’s blessing, and his skills in animal breeding to outwit his father-in-law. Jacob’s character is, indeed, a reflection of his name–Ya’akov. But, notwithstanding Jacob’s apparent successes, va-yetzer lo, he is ultimately constricted by the dread of the world. His experience of life as dread-full (va-yira me’od) is a function of all four of the primal existential anxieties to which we have referred.
On last dread–filled night, Jacob finally fully confronts the reality of his mortality. Death is an ever-present anxiety. It terrorizes people when it takes those who are nearest and dearest to them, reminding them that it will one day come stalking at their door also. Yet most people repress the terror, denying its existential reality by blocking it from their consciousness.
For 20 years, Jacob has known that he would have to face Esau, who has threatened to kill him, but he succeeds in repressing his fear. Finally, the moment of truth is upon him. Esau approaches, accompanied by his army. Jacob now stares death in the face. Martin Heidegger points out that death, as a boundary situation, “act as a spur to shift us from one mode of existence to a higher one.” I believe that, in the face of his death, Jacob begins the process of his rebirth as an authentic self. The conclusion of this process is symbolized by his receiving a new name. Jacob, “the deceiver,” is transformed into Israel, “the noble striver”. The sun rises for him on the first day of his new experience of being.
One’s dread of death is closely associated with one’s terror of isolation. One’s experience of death is one’s own-most thing. One dies alone, totally isolated. One’s death cannot be shared, and one’s sense of isolation in death reflects one’s often-repressed anxiety about isolation in life. Can anybody know my feelings, feel my pain, share my terrors, experience my fears, really know what it feels like to me when I love deeply, or experience my feelings of awe when I am granted a powerful flash of intuition in a rare moment of grace? No matter how fortunate I am in my social networks and in the support of a loving family, my being in the world is essentially isolated. If this is true when one shares one’s being with others, how much more so when one stands alone, feeling utterly abandoned.
Jacob’s experience of isolation is reflected in the stark words of our text: And Jacob remained alone (Genesis 32:25). He’s sense of existential isolation, like his fear of death, is experienced as va-yetzer lo –constriction. Erich Fromm comes very close to expressing what Jacob’s experience of isolation must have been like. For Fromm, existential isolation is the uranxiety. “Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence, to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world. It means that the world can invade me without my ability to react.”
For Jacob the sense of isolation is all encompassing. It even includes his experience of alienation from God. Preparing himself for his encounter with Esau, he calls upon God (Genesis 32:12 to 13), reminding Him of his promises to him of success and salvation. But God, uncharacteristically, is silent. Jacob is spiritually absolutely alone. He is also socially alone. He is isolated both from his brother and from his adopted family through marriage, and, perhaps, from his wives as well. His brother is about to kill him. According to the Midrash, his wives are resentful of their enforced relocation from their family and homeland, and of the mortal dangers, which this relocation portends. Jacob himself is dislocated. He has at burned his bridges to his foster home of 20 years, and his brother blocks the way to his new home. Isolated in every way, Jacob is in the existential mode of the “not at home.”
Jacob’s experience of existential isolation on that dark, agonizing night of his soul discloses to him another of the universal ultimate concerns--the fear of freedom. According to most existential thinkers, the fear of freedom is experienced as the dread of accepting responsibility, where responsibility is also experienced as loneliness. “To the extent that one is responsible for one’s life, on is alone. Responsibility implies authorship: to be aware of one’s authorship means to forsake the belief that there is another who [will completely protect] one” (Irvin Yalom). Jacob had always made God alone ultimately responsible for his safety and well-being. In flight from Esau, he had bargained with God: And Jacob made a vow, saying: “If God will be with me and will guard me on this way in which I walk, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I shall return in peace to my father’s home, then the Lord will be God unto me” (Gen. 28:20-21). On his return twenty years later, he again places full responsibility upon God: “Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau, for I fear that he will come and kill me and the children and their mothers. For, You said: I shall deal well with you…”(Gen. 32:12-13).
But now, alone in the face of God’s silence, Jacob can no longer shift responsibility to God. Nor can he any longer conceal from himself that, in a sense he had actually become his twin brother Esau, the cunning hunter. It is now no longer possible for him to repress his guilt and deny responsibility for what he has done to Esau. This is the insightful comment of the rabbis of the Midrash who suggest that the only blessing desired by Jacob is forgiveness for having wronged his brother. It is also what a host of commentators mean in their assertion that Jacob wrestled with the guardian angel of Esau. His struggle was really with the Esau within himself. Jacob recognizes that he must accept full responsibility for his being and for his actions. On this night of dread there is no escape from responsibility/freedom. He faces the grim choice of being the no-thing he is now experiencing or of creating himself anew—the ultimate act of responsibility authorship and freedom.
There is a fourth and final aspect of Jacob’s transformative experience during his dark night of despair—his sudden realization that his entire life’s struggle had been without transcendent meaning . Viktor Frankl point out that lack of meaning is the fundamental source of anxiety and neurosis. His personal experience of Auschwitz persuaded him that survival is a function of one’s ability to find meaning in one’s suffering, which is attained through self-transcendence. Transcendence, thus understood, is ex-istence in its original sense of standing outside of one’s current, trapped and hopeless situation. It is only by moving out of one’s situation that one can actualize one’s suppressed potential and become other than what one is at present, finally entering into the fullness of being.
Jacob had been comfortable both in bargaining with God and thus, also, with his conditional relationship with the Divine. He had been granted inspired visions, but lacked the immediate consciousness of the meaning of the inspiration: Behold God is in this place, but I knew it not (Gen. 28:16). He was unable to ex-ist, to transcend his personal situation. His encounter was not authentic. He had been granted Divine visions, but had missed the opportunity offered him of genuine engagement with God. Only now, in his struggle with “the man,” does he have an immediate, conscious encounter with God: And he called the name of the place Peni’el, for I saw the Lord face to face and my soul was saved (Gen. 32:31). Kimhi comments that Jacob’s acknowledgement that his life had been saved through face-to-face encounter was a new experience for him.
Jacob’s struggle is with himself. But it is also with God. The mysterious man is simultaneously Jacob and his God. The experience is transformative. Jacob becomes Israel. Faced with becoming a no-thing, he accepts responsibility for his past and authorship of his future. He stands outside of his empty existence, and the archetypal manipulator creates himself anew, assuming a new mode of relationship with man and with God. In Jacob’s struggle for survival, God ahs literally “saved his soul” (Gen. 32:31).He has wrested blessing from adversity, triumph from travail.
However, self-transcendence is not possible without suffering. Jacob’s encounter leaves him limping. The dislocated person suffers a dislocated hip. He is transformed from conniving manipulator to wounded hero.
One question remains unanswered: Unlike Abraham and Sarah, the name Israel does not replace the name Jacob. Indeed, the third patriarch is more commonly called Jacob than he is called Israel. I suggest that self-transcendence cannot possibly be a permanent mode of being. At best, the best of us can achieve moments of transcendence. Then, enriched and perhaps also wounded, we have to come to earth again to face the challenges of material survival. Yisra’el must inevitably become Ya’akov –to plan, plot, work out, connive, develop strategies for survival—hopefully, this time without deceit, and ennobled by the experience of transcendence.
Note: I originally published this Torah lesson in the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol.18, No.1, Spring, 1994, pp 19-31, as Jacob’s Struggle: A Psycho-Existential Exegesis.