Beyond Our Wounds and Limps
One dark night 3586 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 guardian angel.
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.
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 a “stranger.”
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 integrity.
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 implementation.
[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 day.”
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). 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 of survival? Each of us is wrestling with the conflicting forces in our lives.
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 grueling journey.
A battle that began 3586 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.