In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Jacob’s famous wrestling match with an angel. On the eve of the reunion with his estranged brother, Esau, Jacob can’t sleep. All night, he wrestles with a mysterious being, sustaining a hip injury. Finally, as the sun begins to rise, the mysterious stranger says: “Let me go.” “Not until you bless me,” Jacob replies.
So many questions arise from this story: Who is the mysterious stranger who appears in the dark of night? What does it mean to ask for a blessing? And, as always, what can this story teach us about our lives today?
Let’s start with the request for a blessing. We typically think of blessings as gifts in our lives, their timing and essence decided by God. A blessing often refers to something out of our control, not something we can ask for or even demand. Yet here Jacob is, in one of the most terrifying moments of his life, unable to sleep, yet able to demand a blessing.
Furthermore, in response to Jacob’s demand, the angel gives him a new name: “You shall be called Yisrael, for you have struggled [yisra-] with God [El] and prevailed.” And we, the Jewish people, get our name – Israel – from this very moment.
In other words, to be a Jew does not mean that we must accept our circumstances, no matter how challenging. No, we are people who get to make our lives our own, even when it means struggling with the Divine – with the seemingly predestined.
In a commentary on this story, Rabbi David Kimchi (France, 1160-1235), explains that this encounter with the mysterious stranger happened at night because “night is the time of fear.” Who among us hasn’t in their lives been afraid of the dark? Or who among us hasn’t lamented how early the winter sun sets bringing its swift fall of darkness? And who among us hasn’t been worried during a time of challenge and sadness? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you understand the fear that night can provoke.
Our story reminds us that we don’t need to be afraid of the dark, or even if we are, that the mystical beings that appear to us in the dark don’t always need explaining. We don’t have to fully understand their essence to be changed by the experience. And the wrestling we do (emotional or spiritual) during times of darkness can lead to blessing.
Friends, the past few weeks have been dark: literally with daylight savings, and metaphorically: in Israel and in Gaza. As we continue to pray for redemption for all the hostages, and as we refuse to lose hope for an abiding peace, we can take comfort in our Torah’s stories. The time of darkness is never the ending, always only a prelude. And as we turn toward the season of Hanukkah , of kindling lights in our homes, of reminding ourselves and others that miracles are possible- let us not be afraid to dwell in the dark. Perhaps we might even find, or seek, a blessing.