Beyond Our Wounds and Limps
One dark night 3576 years ago a mysterious battle
took place, which left a great man wounded, but intact.
This battle embodies the persecutions throughout history
– the battles of life, the perpetual struggle with
evil, both collective and personal.
In most dramatic terms,
this week’s Torah portion relates the story how “Jacob remained alone and
a stranger wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he
could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh. Jacob’s
hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with him.” As a result Jacob “was
limping because of his thigh. The Israelites therefore do not eat the displaced
[sciatic] nerve on the hip joint to this very day because he [the stranger]
touched Jacob’s thigh on the displaced nerve” (Genesis 32:25-33).
Volumes have been written
to explain this strange episode. The focus of this column will be on the psycho-spiritual
application of this classic wrestle, between Jacob and the stranger – Esau’s
Jacob and Esau are archetypes of the two polar forces in
existence which stand in perpetual battle: Spirit and matter,
the scholar and the warrior – the body’s selfish
survival drive and the soul’s yearning for transcendence.
Dust of History).
Within each of us we have
both these voices tugging at us in opposite directions. Virtually every choice
we make poses two options: Should I take care of my own needs or should I
help another? Should I be a taker or a giver? Am I here to serve myself or
to serve a higher cause? Each of us is wrestling, in one way or another, with
However, the battle is
not always with the same intensity; it goes through stages – night and day.
The dark night represents the sinister. The morning light epitomizes the bright.
We live in a dark universe, which shrouds the inner light of spirit. Transcendence
in this material world is not easily gained. Yet, each of us experiences sacred
moments when we feel spiritually strong.
When darkness falls and
our souls are in a lull, when we cannot see clearly and our senses are numbed
– we then become vulnerable to the material forces that attack at our very
Jacob’s wrestling with
Esau’s angel through the night represents all the battles of our lives, beginning
with the biggest battle of them all – between the material and the spiritual.
The tension between matter
and spirit is deep and difficult. Yet even then, the soul (Jacob) cannot be
defeated. But the material forces are relentless. Even when the essence of
our beings cannot be hurt, matter’s inherent narcissism “touches” our extremities
– the part of your life which is vulnerable and exposed to the elements.
As the Zohar explains:
The angel saw that Jacob was strong throughout – protected on both sides by
his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and he could not defeat him. So he attacked
and wounded his thigh – the part that protrudes from and is outside of the
body (Zohar I 146a. 171a).
The structure of the human body parallels our faculties.
The body divides into three sections, head, torso and legs,
corresponding to our faculties – mind, emotion and
[According to the spheratic
structure of the mystics, the building blocks of all existence consist of
ten spheres, divided into three categories: The mind, which entails Chochma,
Binah and Daas (conception, comprehension and intimate knowledge). The heart
contains the higher emotions – Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet (love, discipline,
compassion). And the legs – from the hips down – represent the lower emotions,
Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut (endurance, yielding, bonding and dignity),
which are primarily on the implementation level].
The hip joint represents the link between our higher faculties
(mind and heart) and our actions. The legs, which connect
us to the ground, characterize our involvement with the
material universe, our struggle to survive.
Optimally, true commitment requires a total investment,
wholemindedly and wholeheartedly – with all our faculties.
Only then, are we immunized against predators.
“When he saw that he could
not defeat him” – because the higher faculties of Jacob were completely protected
– “he touched the upper joint of his thigh”, which connects to the legs, representing
our mechanical behaviors and commitments. When a person acts mechanically,
and his behavior is hollow – lacking intellectual intensity and emotional
passion – he is at his most vulnerable. And that’s where the crass forces
of materialism attack and have the power to injure.
The enemy always goes
after our weakest link, our blind spots.
[In the Talmud (Chulin 91a) there are two opinions which
of Jacob’s thighs were hurt – the right thigh
or both thighs. The consensus is both thighs. The Kabbalists
discuss the contradiction in the Zohar. In one place it
states that the Jacob’s wound was in Netzach,
the right thigh, and in another place it says that it was
Hod, the left thigh (see Pardes gate 17, “Jacob’s
Thigh.” Arizal – Taamei HaMitzvot on this week’s
portion. Explained in Siddur Im Dach 304d. Derech Mitzvosecho,
Mitzvat Gid Hanoshe)].
Spiritually and psychologically
speaking: Nothing can harm you when you are on a spiritual high and feel strong
and committed to your higher calling; when your mind and heart and actions
are all aligned. But then there are times when we may feel overwhelmed by
the struggle for material survival, overcome by material pressures, and spiritually
disconnected. In times like this, we are vulnerable and prone to be wounded
in the process of the struggle.
We therefore have to acknowledge this weak spot, by recognizing
and remembering Jacob’s wound. The beginning of all
healing is awareness of the problem. Thus we refrain from
“eating the displaced nerve on the hip joint to this
very day” (the sciatic nerve, the large main nerve
of the lower extremity running down the back of the leg).
We are sensitive to the fact that our mindless immersion
in material existence touches a nerve which leaves us wounded.
But Jacob’s experience
also tells us that despite the wound, we remain intact and cannot be defeated.
Moreover, we ultimately will be healed. Just as the sun came out and began
to heal Jacob, until he was entirely healed (see Rashi 33:18), we too will
be healed in the dawn of redemption.
As it is in the microcosm
of our personal struggles, so is it in the macrocosm of global battles: The
stranger’s night-long battle with Jacob refers to the long history of Jewish
persecution. In the words of the Midrash: During the night of Exile, the nations
of the world and the kingdom
of Edom (Esau) wrestle with Jacob, until the dawn
of redemption (Midrash Lekach Tov).
When the “stranger” touched
– struck – Jacob’s hip socket, “he touched the tzaddikim and tzidkoniyot (the
righteous men and women), the prophets and the prophetesses, that will spring
from him [Jacob] in the future, specifically in the generation of the Roman
persecution after the Temple’s destruction (Bereishis Rabba 77:3). Jacob’s
wound is a collective scar resulting from all the battles of history. As Nachmanides
explains: This episode refers to all the suffering and persecutions that the
children of Jacob would endure at the hands of the children of Esau. Despite
their horrible suffering, and deep wounds, they would prevail. Even the wounds
that they would endure would ultimately heal, as it was by Jacob, in the final
redemption (Ramban 32:25. Chinuch Mitzvah 3).
The Zohar (I 170b) adds a fascinating dimension in explaining
the verse “The Israelites therefore do not eat the
displaced nerve on the hip joint to this very day”
because he [the stranger] touched Jacob’s thigh on
the displaced nerve.” The Hebrew original for “the
displaced nerve” is “at gid hanoshe.”
“At” (alef tof) is an acronym for Tisha b’Av
– the saddest day of the calendar, when we fast to
remember the destruction of the temple by the Romans, the
descendants of Esau. Thus the verse contains a profound
foresight: The stranger – the angel of Esau, ancestor
of the Romans – “touched Jacob’s thigh
on the displaced nerve,” and as a result destroyed
the Holy Temple
and displaced the Jewish people in the long exile. As a
result of this wound, “the Israelites therefore do
not eat – on Tisha B’av, which corresponds to
– the displaced nerve on the hip joint, to this very
The Akeidat Yitzchak (Vayishlach, gate 26) takes this a
step further: The entire phrase, “at gid hanoshe,”
alludes to the four fast days in the year which commemorate
the Temple’s destruction by the children of Esau: “at”
– Tisha b’Av. “Gid” is gimmel, yud, dalet – gimmel is the
3rd of Tishrei (the Fast of Gedalia), yud – the 10th
of Tevet, dalet – the 4th month (Tammuz), referring
to the 17th of Tammuz (“gid” the numerical equivalent
of 17), and “hanoshe” is the same letters as “hashone” (the
year). Thus the verse reads, that due to the wound left
by Esau, we “do not eat” on these four days in the year,
which embody in time the dimension of the “displaced nerve.”
Broadly speaking, the confrontation between Rome
and Jerusalem, and in general the head-on conflict
between matter and spirit, is a grueling battle, leaving
us limping with deep wounds. More specifically, the wounds
are in the "thighs," because the primary work
in exile is the refinement of the part of the historical
"body" corresponding to the "thighs"
(Netzach and Hod) – see Abraham's
Vision. The history of our long exile has left
us bruised – all because of the touch of Esau's angel
displacing Jacob's nerve.
Is there a person on earth
that does not carry a wound or two? How many of us are limping – even if we
may know how to hide the fact – from the imbalance in our lives, the dissonance
between our spirits and our bodies, between our higher ideals and the pressures
Each of us is wrestling with the conflicting forces in
But the dawn always comes.
And after all the battles, the “stranger” recognizes that he cannot prevail
over our spirit. So he attacks our weakest point; our doubts, our tenuous
commitments, our mechanical activities. He wounds the part of us that is immersed
in the “means” – in work and making a living, where we are most likely to
be disconnected from our souls.
Yet, even these wounds will heal. Jacob forces the “stranger”
to bless him, and all of us. Ironically, the “stranger”
– the “angel” and power of materialism
itself – even as it wounds us also blesses us with
the name “Israel” – you will prevail over man and the Divine.
Built into the very wound is the power to heal from any
wound, whether it be man-made or Divine-made!
Where do we stand now?
After all the history of human suffering, we have prevailed. We are here
– and the world has become a more refined place.
We are hurt but intact. Wounded, limping, handicapped,
our nerves frayed, we are close to the finish line of our
A battle that began 3576
years ago is about to come to an end.
We are now asked to hold
on, just as those before us have held on, to never become resigned, to know
that despite all the challenges and the wounds, we will be victorious – both
personally and collectively.
Sources: Zohar I 146a. 170a. Rekanti and Shaloh on this
week’s Parsha. Shaloh Mesechta Taanis. Derech Mitzvosecho
Mitzvat Gid Hanoshe.
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Question for the week: Please share
an inspiring story capturing the dignity of the human spirit
to transcend a wound or handicap.
a question for future weeks.