What was Yaakov’s wrestling match with the angel all about?
A number of points jump out in the narrative: the timing, shortly after escaping Lavan and immediately before encountering Esav. His loneliness: ויותר יעקב לבדו. The significance of darkness and dawn. The meaning of his divine interlocutor’s blessing: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” His thigh injury and subsequent limp. The inclusion of the subsequent practice of Yaakov’s descendants to refrain from eating the sinew.
But perhaps most telling is a root that appears at two critical junctures in the story: יכל, which denotes survival, victory, endurance. First, וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ, the Angel saw that he could not defeat Yaakov. Second, כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל. Yaakov prevailed against divine and human enemies alike.
Yaakov’s life was less a series of triumphs than sheer will to survive, to endure. His brother sought to murder him, so he fled for his life, only to confront the manipulative and deceitful Lavan. His beloved Rachel lashed out at him for her barrenness. For twenty years Yaakov toiled bitterly to earn his keep; scorching heat ravaged him by day and frost by night, and sleep fled from his eyes (see Ber. 31:40). As his relationship with Lavan soured and Yaakov saw that “he was no longer with [Yaakov]” as he had been previously, it became clear that it was time for Yaakov to return to Kenaan - only to confront his hateful brother - and this time Yaakov had a young, highly vulnerable family to protect.
Of course, he would not only have to outwit Esav, but to endure the death of his beloved Rachel in childbirth, the apparent tragic death of his beloved Yosef, a life-threatening famine, the fear of losing Binyamin as well, and the descent of his family to Egypt at an extremely advanced age.
Yet he endured - and so too, through the centuries, have his children. We refrain from eating the gid ha-nasheh, because the symbolism of Yaakov’s emergence in the morning scarred, limping, but alive and marching forward is not his story but all of ours.
The angel, on this reading, was not only representative of Esav, but of all the travails Yaakov would endure throughout his difficult life, whose years were “fewer and worse” than those of his fathers. The man was simply an “Ish.” And Yaakov confronted so many of these challenges alone.
Some scholars have argued that the courage to endure in the face of adversity is particularly associated with a unique dimension of manhood. I’m not convinced that’s what the Torah is trying to say here, though it’s certainly worth considering.
What the Torah is certainly suggesting is that we - as both individuals and as members of the Jewish people - will eternally wrestle with forces arrayed against us, and that we must continue to bravely wrestle and fight to see another day, marked by the break of dawn.