Photo Credit: Courtesy
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z"l

It is one of the most enigmatic episodes in the Torah, but also one of the most important, because it was the moment that gave the Jewish people its name: Israel, one who “wrestles with G-d and with men and prevails.”

Jacob, hearing that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, was terrified. He was, says the Torah, “very afraid and distressed.” He made three forms of preparation: appeasement, prayer, and war (Rashi to Gen. 32:9). He sent Esau a huge gift of cattle and flocks, hoping thereby to appease him. He prayed to G-d, “Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother” (Gen. 32:12). And he made preparation for war, dividing his household into two camps so that one at least would survive.


Yet he remained anxious. Alone at night he wrestled with a stranger until the break of dawn. Who the stranger was is not clear. The text calls him a man. Hosea (12:4) called him an angel. The Sages said it was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob himself seems sure that he has encountered G-d Himself. He calls the place where the struggle took place Peniel, saying, “I have seen G-d face to face and my life was spared” (Gen. 32:30).

There are many interpretations. One, however, is particularly fascinating both in terms of style and substance. It comes from Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam, France, c.1085-1158). Rashbam had a strikingly original approach to biblical commentary. He felt that the Sages, intent as they were on reading the text for its halachic ramifications, often failed to penetrate to what he called omek peshuto shel mikra, the plain sense of the text in its full depth.

Rashbam felt that his grandfather occasionally erred on the side of a midrashic, rather than a “plain” reading of the text. He tells us that he often debated the point with Rashi himself, who admitted that if he had the time, he would have written further commentaries to the Torah in the light of new insights into the plain sense that occurred to him “every day.” This is a fascinating insight into the mind of Rashi, the greatest and most famous commentator in the entire history of rabbinic scholarship.

All of this is a prelude to Rashbam’s remarkable reading of the night-time wrestling match. He takes it as an instance of what Robert Alter has called a type-scene, that is, a stylized episode that happens more than once in Tanach. One obvious example is young-man-meets-future-wife-at-well, a scene enacted with variations three times in the Torah: in the case of Abraham’s servant and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Tsipporah. There are differences between them, but sufficient similarities to make us realize that we are dealing with a convention. Another example, which occurs many times in Tanach, is birth-of-a-hero-to-a-hitherto-infertile-woman.

Rashbam sees this as the clue to understanding Jacob’s night-time fight. He relates it to other episodes in Tanach, two in particular: the story of Jonah, and the obscure episode in the life of Moses when, on his way back to Egypt, the text says that “When they were in the place where they spent the night along the way, G-d confronted Moses and wanted to kill him” (Ex. 4:24). Tzipporah then saved Moses’ life by giving their son a brit milah (Ex. 4:25-26).

It is the story of Jonah that provides the key to understanding the others. Jonah sought to escape from his mission to go to Nineveh to warn the people that the city was about to be destroyed if they did not repent. Jonah fled in a boat to Tarshish, but G-d brought a storm that threatened to sink the ship. The prophet was then thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish that later vomited him out alive. Jonah thus realised that flight was impossible.

The same, says Rashbam, applies to Moses who, at the Burning Bush, repeatedly expressed his reluctance to undertake the task G-d had set him. Evidently, Moses was still prevaricating even after beginning the journey, which is why G-d was angry with him.

So, it was with Jacob. According to Rashbam, despite G-d’s assurances, he was still afraid of encountering Esau. His courage failed him and he was trying to run away. G-d sent an angel to stop him from doing so.

It is a unique interpretation, sobering in its implications. Here were three great men, Jacob, Moses, and Jonah, yet all three, according to Rashbam, were afraid. Of what? None was a coward.

They were afraid, essentially, of their mission. Moses kept telling G-d at the Burning Bush: Who am I? They won’t believe in me. I am not a man of words. Jonah was reluctant to deliver a message from G-d to Israel’s enemies. And Jacob had just said to G-d, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me” (Gen. 32:11).

Nor were these the only people in Tanach who had this kind of fear. So did the Prophet Isaiah when he said to G-d, “I am a man of unclean lips.” So did Jeremiah when he said, “I cannot speak: I am a child.”

This is not physical fear. It is the fear that comes from a feeling of personal inadequacy. “Who am I to lead the Jewish people?” asked Moses. “Who am I to deliver the word of G-d?” asked the prophets. “Who am I to stand before my brother Esau, knowing that I will continue the covenant and he will not?” asked Jacob. Sometimes the greatest have the least self-confidence, because they know how immense is the responsibility and how small they feel in relation to it.

Courage does not mean having no fear. It means having fear but overcoming it. If that is true of physical courage it is no less true of moral and spiritual courage.

Marianne Williamson’s remarks on the subject have become justly famous. She wrote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of G-d. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of G-d that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Shakespeare said it best:

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (Twelfth Night).

I sometimes feel that, consciously or subconsciously, some take flight from Judaism for this very reason. Who are we to be G-d’s witness to the world, a light to the nations, a role model for others? If even spiritual giants like Jacob, Moses, and Jonah sought to flee, how much more so you and me? This fear of unworthiness is one that surely most of us have had at some time or other.

The reason it is wrong is not that it is untrue, but that it is irrelevant. Of course, we feel inadequate to a great task before we undertake it. It is having the courage to undertake it that makes us great. Leaders grow by leading. Writers grow by writing. Teachers grow by teaching. It is only by overcoming our sense of inadequacy that we throw ourselves into the task and find ourselves lifted and enlarged by so doing. In the title of a well-known book, we must “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

Be not afraid of greatness: that is why G-d wrestled with Jacob, Moses, and Jonah and would not let them escape. We may not be born great, but by being born (or converting to become) a Jew, we have greatness thrust upon us. And as Marianne Williamson rightly said, by liberating ourselves from fear, we help liberate others. That is what we as Jews are meant to do: to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, to be true to our faith while seeking to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

For we are all children of the man who was given the name of one who wrestles with G-d and with men and prevails. Ours is not an easy task, but what worthwhile mission ever was? We are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake. And if, at times, we feel like running away, we should not feel bad about it. So did the greatest.

To feel fear is fine. To give way to it is not. For G-d has faith in us all even though, at times, even the best of us lack faith in ourselves.


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.