Of all the individuals in the Torah, Jacob had the strongest relationship with angels. He first encountered those ethereal beings when he left his home and traveled to Cana’an. When he fell asleep Jacob dreamt of a golden ladder reaching to heaven with angels traveling from him on the ground to the heavens above. Jacob had further encounters with angels- they bumped into him at an encampment. An angel wrestled with him when he was alone, on the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after decades of separation.
That fight with the angel was dramatic. It was a fight that lasted all night, injured Jacob permanently, and culminated with a new name for Jacob. He was given the name Israel and his descendants have been called “The Children of Israel” until to this day.
Jacob’s struggle at the river is probably the most represented by artists. Each presentation shows a slightly different perspective of the confrontation.
Those of you who have been to Toronto may be familiar with this sculpture by Nathan Rapoport. The Angel is swooping down from heaven with huge velocity, but Jacob stands his ground, holding his own. They are very evenly matched.
This piece by Don Saco shows Jacob pulling the angel down. Jacob is struggling to keep the ethereal being earthbound, and winning.
Phillip Ratner created this piece which looks like two dancers- waltzing. They are
evenly balanced and seemingly each is trying to gauge the worth of the other.
Gustave Dore is known for his hundreds of engravings of biblical stories. This engraving shows Jacob literally on the brink of survival. He is struggling with all his might against the strong and relaxed angel who definitely seems to have the upper hand.
The painting below by Chagall shows Jacob on his knees, possibly at the point when he is given the blessing by the angel. In the text Jacob doesn’t seem to be asking or begging. Chagall has given the angel a stance of superiority whereas in the text Jacob is acting as if he is in control of the situation. Possibly the most intriguing piece I have seen is this sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein.
Both figures are large. Heavy. Monumental. The angel, with his fine, strong features and flowing hair seams to be squeezing the air out of Jacob. The 2500 kilo marbled brown stone is beautiful and adds a feeling of power to the composition. It appears to be a fight almost to the death- a struggle between two enormously strong equals.
There are questions about this struggle with the angel at the Jabok River. Was the angel sent by God to give Jacob a blessing but Jacob was too suspicious so that’s why the fight ensued? Was it actually a dream? Was it Jacob’s conscience and he was fighting himself?
Every part of Jacob’s story is a struggle. He seems to have been a man who wanted a quiet life but was thrown into strife every step of the way. It’s true that he did traded his stew for Esau’s birthright. But he had to be convinced by his mother to deceive his father. He was sent away to find a wife; essentially exiled. He had to find a profession, learn it, and work for a begrudging and selfish father-in-law. Rather than stay near his parents’ successful herd and home he left to support two wives, two concubines, and a large family. When he achieved financial success God told home to return to Cana’an.
Jacob needed the encouragement of God and God’s angels. Each step of the way they were there to accompany him- in essence hold the door open. The struggle at the Jabok River was a struggle within Jacob, looking at his history with his brother and fearing to face the consequences. It was the opportunity for Jacob to reflect on his years in exile with the difficulties between his two wives. It was the point in time where he faced his challenges and accepted with full heart his position as patriarch- leader of a future nation.
We all have angels and we all have struggles. Hopefully we can recognize and remember the angels in our lives and access them with growing strength and wisdom.
With prayers for peace and wisdom, have a Shabbat Shalom.