One of the most challenaging stories in the Torah concerns Jacob and his nocturnal encounter with a mysterious opponent with whom he wrestles throughout one fateful night. This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), is rich with the symbolism about the contentious nature of the relationship between us and God as understood in the Judaic tradition.
Among the more morally ambiguous figures in the Torah, Jacob at first glance seems an unlikely character to become one of the foundational figures in the history of the Jewish people. He is a wily swindler who, as a young man, perpetrates a double deception. First, he dupes his older and far less clever twin brother, Esau, into selling him his birthright as rightful leader of their tribe. Then Jacob deceives his aging and feeble father, Isaac, into bestowing on him the special blessing reserved for the firstborn. In a fury of justifiable anger at his brother’s betrayals, Esau vows revenge on Jacob, who flees and remains in exile for twenty years. At this point in the story, God directs Jacob to return to his ancestral home, there to finally confront his brother.
On the eve before his homecoming, Jacob chooses to spend the night alone, having sent his family, flocks and servants on ahead to a place of safety. He has been warned that Esau is coming with a force of four hundred men to meet him in the morning and Jacob naturally wonders what kind of vengeance Esau will seek. This is when Jacob – alone, fearful, uncertain, and perhaps conscience-stricken – is confronted by a figure who appears without explanation, someone the Torah initially describes simply as “a man.” We are then told that this stranger and Jacob wrestle throughout the night without either figure being able to prevail.
At this point in the narrative, just as dawn is about to break, we are told of several remarkable developments which shift the outcome of the conflict that has raged since dusk. First, realizing that he would not be able to overcome Jacob before daybreak, the stranger mysteriously touches Jacob’s side in such a way that Jacob’s hip is wrenched out of its socket, an injury that will leave Jacob with a limp for the rest of his life. Amazingly, the wounded Jacob continues to struggle, leading his opponent to implore that he be released before the sun rises, to which Jacob makes the astonishing demand that the stranger bless him in return for ending the combat. After asking for his name, the stranger informs Jacob that henceforth he would be called “Israel,” a name meaning “One who wrestles with God.”
Finally, the stranger blesses Jacob before vanishing into the dawn as mysteriously as he appeared the night before. The significance of this blessing is enormous, since the stealing of a birthright and a blessing not meant for him is what sent Jacob into exile twenty years earlier. This time Jacob is determined to prove his worth and by pitting himself – body and soul — against the stranger in the night, he successfully obtains a new blessing, one that is rightfully his, signifying that he has finally and honestly earned his birthright as the leader of his people.
The story of Jacob wrestling with an angel viscerally reflects the experience what the mystic and poet John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul,” the kind of spiritual crisis which forces us to examine who we are, what ultimately matters to us, and how we fit into the cosmic scheme of things. While the opponent we are wrestling with in such a crisis is often described as God, symbolically speaking we might just as well say the opponent is our own eternally flawed human nature or all those repressed aspects of ourselves which Jung described as our Shadow. Regardless of the opponent we face — fear, loneliness, vulnerability, unworthiness, powerlessness, meaninglessness, guilt, anger, betrayal, or loss, to name but a few possibilities — the struggle is same. In each case, we are being called to encounter a larger and deeper sense of who we are, one which more fully embraces both our light and our darkness.
Speaking from a more overtly spiritual perspective, the kind of crisis occasioned by a Dark Night of the Soul may lead us to question our deepest beliefs – or our lack of beliefs — about the nature of the holy. We may be wrestling with the God of our childhood, an image of the divine we outgrew as we put theology to the test of reason and maturity. We may be wrestling with core values from our past, tenets which no longer bring a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives. Regardless of the spiritual focus, such crises of faith have a common effect: the foundation we depended on as rock-solid is shifting and no longer makes sense in the same way.
We each have our own moments of wrestling with seemingly overpowering forces which manifest unpredictably in our lives, seismic shifts which shake us from the foundation up. It may be the death of a loved one, a painful divorce, the end of a career, a serious illness, or other traumatic event. Paradoxically, such experiences may presage a loss of faith or a spiritual awakening. Regardless, such experiences not only change the logistics of our lives, but they also ask us to reexamine our relationship to questions of ultimate meaning and significance.
What allows us to hold on through the night, contending with whatever confronts us, refusing to be vanquished? What blessings are bestowed on us by that awesome angel? How do we cope with the inevitable wounds such encounters bring? And, most importantly, how is our identity — both our sense of self and the way others see us — altered by the times in our lives when, like Jacob, our souls have wrestled with an angel in the night? Seeking answers to these questions is crucial if we are to be ultimately enlarged rather than diminished by our inevitable encounters with the dark dimension of the sacred.