Jacob is finally going to come face to face with his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Twenty years earlier, Jacob had taken advantage of Esau, grabbing Esau’s birthright and stealing Esau’s blessings from their father. Jacob had to flee a furious brother who wanted to kill him, and now that he’s on his way back, worrying his brother wants revenge. Jacob is panicking, and scared of what his brother might do to his family and his possessions.
Jacob decides to sends gifts to appease Esau, and hopes to soften his anger toward him. He also divides his family and possessions into two groups in the hope of preserving at least half of his belongings should there be an attack. Jacob is torn and frightened as he awaits his brother’s reaction.
Then God sends an angel to battle with Jacob.
“And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have wrestled with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.”
What is the meaning of this angelic wrestling match?
The medieval commentator Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that the root of the Hebrew word for “wrestle” (“a-b-k”) is actually the connected to the root for the Hebrew word for “hug” (“ch-b-k”). The Ramban explains the connection is based on a similarity in action: while wrestling, the two protagonists tie up with one another like a bow- in a manner that seems similar to hugging. And while the Ramban notes the physical similarities between hugging and wrestling, I think there are profound psychological ones as well.
We all have seen our children fighting with each other. There seems to be a fine line between the act of hugging (I love you) and struggling (I am really mad at you!). The line between love and hate is so thin; we can start with one, and end with the other, even in one conversation. And we seem to wrestle the most with the people we hug the most; all love relationships include some element of love-hate in them. But why is it that we always tend to disagree more deeply and emotionally with people closest to us?
I believe that the message of the Torah is about finding the balance between strength and weakness, nurturing and confrontation. This is the lesson of struggling with the Angel. Jacob had spent a life running away from his problems. So God sends him an Angel.
The Angel teaches Jacob that he is no longer the same man. All of the years in exile have made him stronger. The man who cannot confront his brother and his father for his fair share is gone. Now he can stand up for himself, and not feel the need to sneak around. If Jacob must stand up for himself, he can wrestle.
Now that Jacob is strong, he is secure enough to give. As human beings we are continuously faced with controlling our emotions. But as a wrestler with inner strength, we can wrestle with our anger toward strangers and toward those closest to us. When we are strong like wrestlers, we can control how we judge others; we can make sure we don’t sacrifice our relationships for silly disagreements, or even for more serious ones. And from there we can offer a true hug, and find the way to pursue the outcome that we really want to achieve, namely, peace and love. But without the inner struggle first, we may never get to the hugs.
Hugging and wrestling are so similar; and oftentimes, we wrestle the most with the people closest to us, the people we should be hugging. When we feel weak, we pour our pain on them, and end up wrestling instead of hugging. So perhaps the biggest lesson of this two sided word, is that we should always try to cross the thin line from wrestling to hugging, and find the strength to hug each other with open hearts.