Wrestling with an Angel
The answer is that Esau was under the mistaken impression that the birth-right was exclusively a spiritual matter. The first-born was expected to carry on the legacy of the father.
Let us set the scene for this week’s parsha. Jacob learned from his mother, Rebecca, that Esau wanted to kill him for usurping their father Isaac’s blessings. Jacob fled to the household of his uncle Laban, whose daughters he married and where he established a large family and, over many years, amassed a considerable fortune. Jacob ultimately resolved to return to the family of his birth. With G-d’s help Jacob defused a potentially hostile departure from his uncle. Now on the way back to his father’s house Jacob fears he will confront a most hostile return. Jacob is forced to prepare for the lethal welcome of his brother Esau.
Jacob anticipates a violent confrontation with his brother and splits his camp into two parts to increase the odds of his family’s survival. He prays to G-d for a peaceful resolution and sends Esau many elaborate gifts.
The Torah recounts that, after accompanying his family and retinue across the river Yabok, “Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. As he wrestled with him, the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated.”
Why was Jacob alone? Didn’t he have his family with him?
Our Sages inform us that Jacob went back over the river to retrieve some small jugs that he had left behind. It was precisely at this moment of Jacob’s loneliness that this mysterious “person” launched an attack against him.
Our Sages reveal to us that this wrestler was none other than Esau’s guardian angel who wished to hurt Jacob because of the blessings he appropriated from Esau.
Numerous questions have been raised about this mysterious confrontation. Among them:
First, why did the angel wait until this last moment of vulnerability to confront Jacob? Didn’t the angel have ample opportunity to tack Jacob during the 20 years that he stayed with his uncle Laban? Why wait until Jacob’s return to his father to attack him?
Second, even if Esau’s angel had always planned to wait for Jacob to return home before challenging him, why did he wait for Jacob to cross back over the Yabok to retrieve some jugs?
With the help of our Sages, we can address these questions and also decipher an enigmatic Midrash that associates Jacob’s hip dislocation to certain of his progeny. More specifically, the Midrash continues, the injury to Jacob’s hip alluded to the fate of his descendants Nadav and Avihu. These two sons of Aaron perished in a divine fire when they brought an unauthorized offering on the day the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary, was dedicated.
What connection is there between Esau’s angel’s quarrel with Jacob over appropriation of his father’s blessings and the fatal act of Nadav and Avihu?
What was Esau’s Argument?
To uncover the hidden message of the Midrash, we must delve more deeply into Esau’s clash with Jacob. The narrative is sharpened when we consider that Esau willingly sold the birth-right, which would have entitled him to their father’s blessings, to Jacob. He voluntarily relinquished the birth-right, with that it entailed, for a serving of stew. Why then did Esau feel that Jacob deceived him, when, in reality, Esau was the one who deceived their father by hiding the fact that he was no longer the legal first-born?
The answer is that Esau was under the mistaken impression that the birth-right was exclusively a spiritual matter. The first-born was expected to carry on the legacy of the father. Since Abraham and Isaac’s legacy was spiritual Esau felt very comfortable giving it away to Jacob for the sake of a meal.
Esau and his guardian angel knew quite well that Jacob was the fitting heir to the spiritual legacy of Abraham and Isaac. That was a given, and Esau therefore gladly gave up his birth-right. In his mind, the birth-right entailed serving as G-d’s messenger to the world and nothing more. Esau was totally uninterested in carrying on the spiritual legacy of his parents and grandparents.
But, when he discovered that Jacob also took the material blessings of as the first-born, Esau became indignant. He came to realize that he had forfeited all the material blessings to which he felt entitled. Esau fell into a murderous rage over, as he saw it, the terrible injustice perpetuated by Jacob.
The argument of Esau’s angel was the proverbial accusation of Jacob wanting both to have his cake and eat it too. Jacob possessed both the spiritual legacy and the material blessings. Esau and his angel were convinced that these two domains must be split between the two brothers and their progeny; Jacob to inherit the spiritual and Esau the material.
Concern for Trinkets
We can now understand why the angel confronted Jacob precisely when he returned to that deserted place to retrieve some trinkets. The Talmud states that this demonstrates how righteous people value physical property. Jacob endangered himself to retrieve something of miniscule value because, to him, even the smallest things have an important spiritual use and purpose. To Esau’s angel this concern for the trivial jugs proved that Jacob was no less a materialist than Esau and reinforced Esau’s argument that Jacob had unfairly stolen the material blessings.
In truth, Jacob did not value material things for their own sake but for the way we use our material objects for higher purposes. Even the least significant material object can be used for a higher purpose.
Nadav and Avihu: Models of Unmitigated Spirituality
We can now decipher the enigmatic Midrash that Esau’s angel alluded to Jacob’s progeny, Nadav and Avihu, when he struck Jacob’s hip.
The story of Nadav and Avihu is spelled out in the Torah and expanded on by the Talmud. They died on the very day the Mishkan was dedicated because they brought an unauthorized offering. Their motivation to bring that offering was their uncontrollable passion to cleave to G-d. They had reached the point where they were willing to have their souls leave their bodies to return to, and be absorbed by, G-d. They had no respect for the physical world.
This passion for G-d, to the exclusion of all else, manifested itself in many other ways. Our Sages teach that they failed to marry or have children and, moreover, were intoxicated as they brought their unauthorized offering. They were totally withdrawn from physical life and drunk with unbridled spirituality.
Thus, when the angel struck Jacob’s thigh, he wanted Jacob to look into the future and see how the sons of Aaron defied their physical existence and sought an escape from the material world. This, essentially, was the angel’s argument to Jacob: why are you so focused on the physical, competing with your brother Esau, when your own progeny will eschew that focus on materialism.
Esau’s angel asserted that Jacob should: “stick to spirituality and I will be responsible for the material side of society.”
The angel wanted to demonstrate that Jacob’s legacy was intended by G-d to be pure and unadulterated spirituality. That is why he alluded to Nadav and Avihu. After all, if we were challenged to identify the most spiritual of Biblical figures, we could justifiably cite Nadav and Avihu.
Esau’s angel intimated, when he struck Jacob’s hip, that Nadav and Avihu were perfect models for the Jewish people, that they were charged to withdraw from society, live in a higher world and leave everything else to Esau.
Of course, Esau’s angel was wrong. The highest spiritual level a Jew can reach is to soar to the greatest heights and then return to our earth to make it a dwelling place fit for G-d. Indeed, this transformation is the original and unchanged objective of Creation. It will become the manifest reality in the Messianic Age which will not be characterized by zero or minimal physicality. Rather, it will be a world in which the physical and spiritual go hand in hand.