Wednesday, 07 Dec 2011

Written by Andrea Zanardo


Parashat Vayishlach

The Yabbok is a tributary of the Jordan River. Biblical archaeologists identify it with a river called Zarka in Arabic, that runs through a deep ravine in northern Jordan. It is mentioned in the Pentateuch as the northern boundary of the territories of the Israelite tribes.  But the Yabbok is especially known for having been the scenario of the wrestling of Jacob with ish, a mysterious man mentioned in Gen 32:25.

Who was this mysterious man? In the Targumim, Aramaic translations of the Biblical text read in the early synagogues, it is mostly identified with an angel [see, for example, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan]. Not one of the chubby babies we are used to seeing in the works of Christian painters. Rather, such an ish is explained to be an emissary from the Other World, resembling a human being. Only through the fight, because of its superhuman strength, does Jacob come to understand that, despite its semblance, it cannot be a man. It is too strong, too resilient: the battle went on for a whole night. 
Midrashic sources report the opinion of the Rabbis, according whom it appeared in guise of a shepherd, or a brigand [see Genesis Rabbah 77:2]. Not a rough street- bandit, a robber, but a rather a sophisticated financial criminal. He saw that Jacob was a wealthy man, who could send droves of goats, cows, bulls and rams as gifts to his brother. So the brigand comes to the side of the Yabbok with his flocks and his camels, and proposed a transaction to Jacob: “let’s put our assets together, and they will grow in number and will give us profits”. But Jacob realizes that there’s a trick, that the mysterious ish is not an honest businessman but a sorcerer with whom it is very dangerous to get along.
Medieval commentators evoke both these characters: the emissary from the Other World, and the shrewd, deceptive sorcerer. They maintain the ish was an evil force. According to Rashi, for example, it was the guardian angel of the most deceptive and cruel man of the time: Esau. The whole purpose of the fight was to prevent Jacob going on, crossing the Yabbok, to continue his journey towards the reconciliation with his brother.

Contemporary commentators are indeed less comfortable with guardian angels. Etz Hayim, the commentary published by the Rabbinic Assembly of the American Conservative Movement [1985:p.201], points out that this mysterious entity, in the mind of the author of the text, could even be the demonic guardian of the Yabbok river, a sort of local deity with whom Jacob struggles in his most lonely hour.

But regardless of the origins or the purposes of that ish, all the commentators point out that the struggle, the fight, happens when Jacob is alone, just before a crucial moment in his life. Jacob is aware of the relevance of that moment: he is to meet with his brother, with whom he lost contact decades before.

All the memories of that troubled relationship come to the surface. Jacob is struggling with his past;   literally, with his conscience. The ish might have been a deceptive, shrewd businessman type: but Jacob himself had been deceitful  with his brother, stealing a blessing which was destined for Esau. The mysterious man can be an emissary from the dark, Other World. For Jacob, exactly at this point, is dealing with the darkest part of his past.

And what sort of a fight was it? Every fight has its rules, and indeed the mysterious ish become a rather sporting gentleman towards the end. He and Jacob realize neither of them could win completely, so Jacob asks for –and receives- a blessing.

Given that it was a fair match, what were the rules of that fight on the Yabbok’s bank?

Jacob, as we know, was not an athletic type. He was thin, and slender, like Daniel Mendoza, a Sephardi Jew, who in the XIXth Century was a famous boxer in England. Thanks to Mendoza the stereotype of the weak, cowardly defenceless Jew was eradicated from the British press –at least for a generation. So, were they, by the Yabbok, trading fists with each other, as in modern boxing?
Or was there, between Jacob and the angel, a match of krav maga?  Krav maga is a martial art developed at the beginning of the State of Israel, by an Israeli soldier; it consists mainly in kicks and punches aimed, firstly, to remove weapons from the opponent’s hand and, secondly, to hit his vital organs.

In other words: on that crucial night, was Jacob trying violently to hit his opponent’ vital organs? Did he feel threatened as if that mysterious ish was carrying a lethal weapon?  But no weapons are mentioned in the Torah; and, as I have said, it looks like it was a rather fair fight.

I tend to think it was a less violent form of physical confrontation. I think it was a matter of agility. There have maybe been kicks and punches, but probably more twists, grabs and throws. In that match, to my mind, Jacob and his opponent did their best to force each other to loose balance, to fall down, to end up lying down on the ground defenceless. Something like an Aikido match, where the winner is not the strongest or the most powerful, but rather the most agile; the one who is able to turn against the opponent the strength and power with which the opponent is trying to hit him.

For a whole night, on the river of the Yabbok, Jacob is fighting with a mysterious ish, a man who represents his past, who wants to prevent his reconciliation with Esau. It was a confrontation that Jacob had tried to avoid for years. Now he has sent lots of gifts to his brother. He has tried to appease him, perhaps because he thought Esau would be satisfied with his share, and would avoid the troubling moment of face-to-face. But the opponent, the ish, the man, is more agile, grabs Jacob and forces him to confront his past. We do not know how many twists and turns happened that night, how many times Jacob, or his opponent, came close to total defeat, to be exposed to the other’s mercy.

The Torah leaves almost all the details to our imagination. But it tells us that Jacob emerged from that confrontation as a more complete human being: that despite the physical wounds that he found on his body after that match, he was ready to make peace with his brother, to confront his past and to move forward.

He discovered his weakness, certainly: but, definitely he also discovered his humanity.

Andrea Zanardo
December 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.