The uterine struggle between Jacob and Esau [Genesis/Breishit 25:22-26] prefigures the momentous struggle with the angel [Gen. 32:23-31]. It is through wrestling in the night with a divine being that Jacob acquires the nation’s name. “They name shall be no more called Jacob, but Israel,” says the divine opponent, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed (Gen. 32:28). Jacob does not become angelic as a result of this nocturnal encounter, but the struggle reveals a certain kind of intimacy with God that is unparalleled.
The nation, not unlike the eponymous father, is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained….
— Ilana Pardes. The Biography of Ancient Israel, p.38
In The Biography of Ancient Israel, Pardes describes the nation of Israel as a character birthed, nursed, challenged and challenging. But she argues that “Israel is not yet a character” in the book of Genesis; instead Genesis provides “an essential introduction,” while the “nation’s biography” is told in Exodus/Shemot and Numbers/Bamidbar. As Israel, the nation, stands ready to cross the Jordan at the end of Deuteronomy, however, Pardes returns to this week’s portion to describe Israel’s situation:
Israel will end up crossing the river and taking possession of Canaan, leaving the plains of Moab behind…
The most relevant image of crossing in this connection is that of Jacob at the Jabbok, after the struggle with the divine messenger. Jacob, as one recalls, limps. “And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh” (Gen. 32:31). He limps because the mysterious opponent “touched the hollow of [his] thigh” (32:25). He limps because he is a mortal who has striven with God and one cannot emerge unscarred from such intense intimacy. He limps because mortals lack perfection and have their points of weakness. (Achilles and Oedipus are two other well-known examples.) He limps because scars are a language and this is the mark of chosenness, commemorated by an alimentary taboo to be kept by the children of Israel in the days to come. “Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank…” (32:32). He limps because of the cost of dreams, the cost of growing up, of assuming the father’s position. He can hear the cry of Esau, way back, over the lost blessing and feel his own tears piling up, the tears that will burst out in the forthcoming encounter with his brother. He limps while crossing, because even after prevailing in the struggle with the unfathomable “man” he is still not exampt from fear on approaching the border of the Promised Land. He limps because this homecoming is temporary: another exile awaits him and his offspring in the future.
But in the meantime, the sun rises upon him as he passes over the Jabbok and no more adversaries — whether human or divine — block the road.
— Pardes, pp.152-153
Although the focus of this work is on Exodus and Numbers, Pardes’ insights provide extremely useful context for Genesis and the entire Torah.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.