Story of a Sinew

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 3, 2009

In Bereshit 32:23-33, after Jacob leaves his brother Esau, we are told a rather curious tale: “And he [Jacob] rose up that night and he took his two wives and his two woman servants and his eleven sons….And he took them and sent them over the brook….And Jacob was left alone.”  Suddenly, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  And when he saw he could not prevail over him and he hit the hollow of [Jacob’s] thigh and thus the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint while he wrestled with him.”  Having overcome this ambush attack by the stranger lurking in the dark of the night, Jacob warns him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  The stranger, consequently, changes Jacob’s name to Israel which symbolizes his having “struggled with G-d and with men” and “prevailed.” Finally, the Biblical narrative concludes, “Therefore, the children of Israel shall not eat the displaced sinew which is upon the hollow of the thigh unto this day because [the stranger] hit the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the displaced sinew.”

This peculiar narrative prompts several questions.  Who is this stranger and why does he want to hurt Jacob?  And, after prevailing over his foe, why, of all things, does Jacob ask him for a blessing?  Finally, why should we not eat the gid ha-nashe simply because this part of Jacob was wounded during the fight?

From Jacob’s describing this individual as godly (Bereshit 32:31), it would appear that this foe was not just a senseless human being bent on hurting a fellow human being, but a heavenly angel sent by G-d to impress a lesson upon Jacob and those to whom this event is reported.

What initiated this incident seems to have been that “Jacob was left alone.”  The Tosefot (Bereshit 32:33) suggest that Jacob’s family acted improperly in leaving him alone.  In view of the major role that Jacob played in their lives, Jacob’s family should have been more careful not to do anything that could endanger Jacob.  To underscore this matter, G-d sent an angel to stage a battle with Jacob at this moment of his vulnerability.  However, despite injudiciously being left alone and vulnerable by his family, G-d allowed Jacob to overcome the attack.  This served to represent Jacob’s unique character – his faith and good deeds – which merited Jacob’s conquest over adversity.  And this is the idea that Jacob extracts from the adversary whom he evidently recognizes to be an angel.  The angel tells Jacob, “You have struggled with G-d and with men and you have prevailed” (Bereshit 32:29).  Jacob has struggled with the hardships and difficulties that he has faced in his encounters with G-d and with man.  Despite the hardships in serving G-d and despite the difficulties his fellow human beings – and even his own brother and uncle – have presented him with, Jacob remained faithful to G-d and upheld the same beliefs and continued the practice of good deeds.  But even Jacob was wounded.  Even Jacob was not perfect and beyond harm and his family should have realized it.  And it is this lesson that the prohibition of eating the gid ha-nashe appears to ingrain in our minds.  No matter how lofty or special or capable one of us may seem, we should not become complacent in our attitude towards him.

Because we value our fellow Jew, we should see to it that he should not be left alone to fend for himself.  Only if we stand behind our fellow Jew, can we avoid unpleasant consequences.  Only by standing behind those who are special among us who can best help us in our spiritual and physical needs, can we best ensure our own survival.