Parashat Va-yishlah

Genesis 32:4-36:43
Triennial Reading: Genesis 32:4-33:20
November 24, 2007 / 14 Kislev 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Senior Director, Community Development, JTS.

“In olden times when wishing still helped, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which was seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face.” Fairy-tale writers habitually begin by distancing the reader from the story in an effort to direct children’s (the intended audience for fairy tales) focus to the symbols and not the frequently frightening action of the story. These beginnings are intended to ease children into the story without hitting too close for comfort.

The above—the opening lines of “The Frog King” by the Brothers Grimm—sets the story in a time period, as Bruno Bettelheim suggests in The Uses of Enchantment, “when we all believed that our wishes could, if not move mountains, change our fate; and when in our animistic view of the world, the sun took notice of us and reacted to events” (62). Focusing on the function of the opening lines of a fairy tales, Bettelheim tells us that

“Once upon a time,” “In a certain country,” “A thousand years ago or longer,” “At a time when animals still talked,” “Once in an old castle in the midst of a large and dense forest”—such beginnings suggest that what follows does not pertain to the here and now that we know. This deliberate vagueness in the beginnings of fairy tales symbolizes that we are leaving the concrete world of ordinary reality. (62)

The beginning of “The Frog King” sits in stark contrast to the narrative of Jacob’s wrestling at the Jabbok in our parashah this week, highlighted by its opening phrase in Genesis 32:25, “Jacob was left alone.” The text makes no attempt to distance us from the tale that follows; on the contrary, it seeks to deposit us into the scene by drawing attention to the despair of isolation and vulnerability.

However the abrupt beginning is the only clear statement of the narrative. As Professor Stephen A. Geller demonstrates in his article, “The Struggle at the Jabbok: The Uses of Enigma in Biblical Religion,” the nine-verse story is anything but simple. Geller suggests that so much meaning was assigned to the verses throughout the editorial process that the narrative as it appears in this week’s parashah is “darkly enigmatic and strangely unsettling” (Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the Hebrew Bible, 9). In short, the interpretations that accompanied the story before it appeared before us in the text of the Bible have made it impossible to derive “essential meaning” from it.

For example, the core of the narrative, verses 27-30, stands in stark contrast to the remainder:

Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.

This section seems to intimate that Jacob was victorious in the struggle. He was able to wrest a blessing from the unnamed adversary and, as the text declares, he “prevailed.” However, in the opening verses (25-26) we read, we see that the unnamed adversary wrenches Jacob’s thigh expressly because “he had not prevailed against him.”

Professor Geller also notes that the story of Jacob’s struggle is often understood, as many other biblical accounts are, as filling the narrative silence.

Perhaps it is the author’s intention that his readers bridge the narrative problems of the story by positing something like the following hypothetical connective statements between its warring sections:

Before section 1, at the head of v. 25, place the phrase:
            “Then God decided to test Jacob.” (cf. Gen. 22:1)

Before section 2, at the end of v. 26, place the phrase:
            “But he [Jacob] did not release him.”

Before section 3, at the end of v. 30, place the phrase:
            “Then Jacob saw it was an angel of the Lord.” (cf. Judg. 6:22) (18)

If we read the story of Jacob’s struggle as a test by God—like Abraham’s commanded sacrifice of Isaac—and include the connective narrative tissue, as Professor Geller does, it would certainly clarify the meaning behind the episode. The attack is a revelatory experience, and Jacob’s success is rewarded by his new name. But that would make this all too neat and tidy. Enigma is the point here. The ambiguity is essential.

There are meanings upon meanings that commentators throughout the ages have sought to find in these enigmatic verses. Was Jacob’s opponent Jacob? Was all this a psychological episode of Jacob coming to terms with his relationship with Esau? Was this episode a spiritual struggle, with God attempting to wrestle the crookedness from our patriarch’s character?

As Professor Geller teaches us, meaning is “not a static quantity to be recovered, like a lost treasure from the sea, but as a dynamic quality, a set of relationships to be explored and charted: the sea itself” (25). In this sense, when we read, “Jacob was left alone,” we hear it not as a departure from fairy-tale beginnings, but as an invitation from the text into Jacob’s struggle. The void left by the generations of meaning-seekers begs us to register our voice and to personalize the story. We read Jacob’s struggle not as distant, remote, and antique, but as real, present, and personal.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.

Marc Wolf