wrestling with God
August 27, 2013 3 Comments
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Benjamin’s children’s bible skips some of my favorite stories. It’s not like the Bible is a family-friendly book, after all. A bowdlerized version for kids will certainly exclude all of the sex and much of the violence. But why skip over the story of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel?
Scholastic’s Read and Learn Bible takes us directly from Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28) to Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation (Genesis 33) to a puzzlingly dull second version of Jacob’s name change in Genesis 35. (Like so many stories in Genesis, we get the same event happening twice, representing a division in the northern and southern Hebrew traditions.) Benjamin read us that chapter from his children’s bible last Sunday, but I knew that he would enjoy the first version of Jacob receiving his new name (Genesis 32), the scene where Jacob wrestles all night with God (or an angel, as most pictures represent the event; the Bible only says that Jacob wrestled with a "man," but then the "man" gives Jacob the new name Israel, which means "triumphant with God" or "who prevails with God" or even "the God wrestler"). So I reached for the KJV:
22 And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
23 And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.…
32 Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.
After I read that scene out loud, my wife wanted to know what "the hollow of his thigh" meant, and what kosher law it seems to be referring to. I found this fascinating answer in the "Ask the Rabbi" section of chabad.org, a Chassidic website.
Why don’t we eat the sciatic nerve?
Why, in this case, do we remember something by not eating? In our tradition, we eat certain foods to remember events. On Passover, we eat matzah to remember that we left in a hurry. On Chanukah, we eat oily food and cheese to remember the miracles. So why do we not eat the gid hanasheh (as the sciatic nerve is called in Hebrew) to remember this event?
Thank you for asking this question; it led me to a very interesting discovery:
The “man” with whom Jacob battled was actually the angel of his brother Esau. The Zohar describes Jacob’s battle with the angel as symbolic of man’s struggle with his darker side. The entire night the battle remained even, as Jacob held strong.
As morning was approaching, the angel knew that he had to act fast, for soon the night — the time when he has power — would be gone, and he would be powerless. He therefore struck Jacob’s thigh, the Zohar explains, which is the place from which all sexual desire extends. And there, he was able to wound him.
The Zohar teaches us that in every struggle we are powerful, and can overcome our evil urges if we so desire. There is only one place where the lust is so strong that even great men are powerless — the gid hanasheh. Its very name means “to forget,” because once it has been aroused, all rational thinking and religious scruples are left far behind.
The only way to win that war is to stay far away in the first place, for once the first flirt his been thrown out, there is no knowing where things can lead. For this reason, the gid is not eaten at all but utterly avoided.
Rabbi Menachem Posner
(By the way, the Zohar is, according to Wikipedia, "the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.")