Friday, December 16, 2005


A Struggle of Conscience

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The weekly portion describes one of the first fights in human history. It was the mighty clash between a mortal and a heavenly creature, and it was clear from the start that the former stood no chance of winning.

On the one side of the battleground was Jacob our father, a simple tent dweller...
On the other, an angel of G-d who had descended from heaven...

Jacob struggled with the angel through the last watch of a long, dark night. There was no crowd to cheer or jeer as in modern day fights. There was no direct T.V. coverage or advertising nor a referee. This was a completely different kind of fight. The fight ended at daybreak and the description of the fight is sparse. The Torah records only a very heavy and effective blow that Jacob sustained on his thigh, causing him to limp for the rest of his days.

Jacob struggled with the angel through the night, and was even injured, but it was he who triumphed in the end. The angel himself testified to Jacob's victory: "Not Jacob shall any more be called thy name, but Israel, for though hast striven with G-d and with men, and hast prevailed" (GENESIS XXXIII, XXIX).

And yet, paradoxically, the winner of the contest was the one who left the battlefield injured. He was the one limping from the thigh while the vanquished returned to heaven healthy and intact.

How can we say that that the injured party won the battle and the loser returned home safe and sound?

It is quite possible to interpret Jacob's victory in a different way. It is clear to us all that the winner is not the one who receives the least blows. If this were the case Jacob would have been the loser. Jacob's victory rests in the fact that he knew how to fight against all the odds even if exposed to blows and terrible wounds.

However, it is likely that he did not fight only with a real being, but also with the "Esau" who was on his mind (our sages already testify that Jacob fought that night with "Esau's guardian angel"). It is quite possible that he wrestled that night with his own conscience and with the doubts in his heart...Perhaps there was some process of repentance and purification during that struggle following the incidents which separated the two brothers.

When we wrestle with our past sins and our fears for the future, we always emerge strengthened, even if we were battered in the process. In a struggle such as this, victory is sweet, even if we are maimed and scarred.

The fact that the name which Jacob received after the struggle (Israel) shows his talent in fighting ("for thou hast striven") and there is no reference at all to his victory. Perhaps he could have been given another name, like "Gabriel" ("for thou hast defeated G-d).

But the emphasis is on the struggle rather than on the victory. Because a battle over essential issues, like the one Jacob endured that night against his own conscience, is a victory in itself.