By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Of all the things we Jews observe in order to remember events in our historic past, surely one of the strangest must be what we read in this week’s parashah. Yaakov wrestles with the angel (Eisav’s guardian angel), and in the course of the struggle, his hip-socket is dislocated. Therefore, to this day, the Children of Israel are not to eat the sciatic nerve of an animal by the hip joint because the angel struck Yaakov’s hip-socket at the sciatic nerve.
This is why most kashrut authorities the world over forbid us using the hindquarter of the animal. So if it has always bothered you that you never tasted a good rump steak, you can blame it on father Yaakov and his wrestling match with the angel of Eisav. (Apparently because of the shortage of meat in Israel, authorities there do allow special treibering of the hindquarter, and the offending sinews and nerves are removed.)
So, tell me, just because 4,000 years ago one of my ancestors had a hip dislocated I must curb my culinary cravings? Is this fair; is it logical? Why remember; what’s the point?
Enter the 12th-century French sage Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), a grandson of Rashi and a Biblical and Talmudic commentator of note. The story of Yaakov and the angel occurred just prior to Yaakov’s impending encounter with his estranged twin brother. Eisav was coming with 400 armed men and Yaakov was actually planning to flee from Eisav. That was when the angel attacked him. According to Rashbam, the reason for the angel wrestling with Yaakov was so that he would be forced to stand his ground and not escape via a back route. Destiny itself was compelling Yaakov to confront the enemy and overcome him. Only then would he witness the fulfillment of G‑d’s promise to protect him from harm.
It seemed as if Yaakov was coming dangerously close to developing a pattern of escapism. He fled Beer Sheva when Eisav threatened to kill him. He fled from Lavan in Charan in the middle of the night when he worried that Lavan wouldn’t give his blessings for Yaakov’s departure. And now he was preparing to flee from Eisav yet again. He didn’t protest too loudly when Lavan cheated him of Rachel and a hundred other times in their livestock business. And any moment now there would be another nocturnal escape.
Apparently, G‑d wanted Yaakov to learn that a philosophy of escapism is not the Jewish way. So the angel dislocated his hip, preventing him from running away. Now Yaakov had no choice but to stand his ground and fight. In the end, he defeated the angel and was blessed with the name Yisrael, signifying a superior stature, victory, and nobility. “No longer shall it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have fought with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.”
Every son and daughter of Yaakov must learn this lesson. Every one of us must become a child of Israel. The qualities of fearlessness and courage, of strength and sacrifice, these are the hallmarks of Israel. When we stop running away from our problems and confront them with guts and fortitude, we enter that higher state of consciousness. We move up from the “Yaakov” Jew who is still struggling, to the “Yisrael” mode where we finally emerge triumphant. When we are prepared to take up the challenge and go for the fight rather than flight, we move from being wrestlers to becoming winners, from humble Yaakov to dominant Israel.
It’s never easy. Escape is usually the path of least resistance. Nor am I suggesting that we go looking for a fight. But there will be times when we know that we need to have that confrontation. We need to square up to a particular problem—or individual—in order to deal with our situation effectively. We shouldn’t be confrontational people. But often we know in our heart of hearts that if we don’t engage a problem honestly, it will continue to plague us.
If we can move from meekness to manliness, then the story of Yaakov’s wrestling match will live on and continue to inspire us to become the stronger personalities we really can be. The dislocated hip joint thus becomes worthy of eternal remembrance because it makes us better people. And the small sacrifices we make in avoiding those non-kosher cuts of meat around the animal’s hip socket are well worth the effort.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman