What does it mean to "Wrestle God"?

Today’s Torah portion includes the famous Godwrestle passage, which give the people Yisrael its name – Godwrestler. In a nutshell, Jacob, with a retinue of wives, children, workers, sheep, and goats is on his way returning home. He hears that his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing as the first born he has stolen, is on his way to meet him with four hundred men. He sends his entire retinue across a river with gifts for Esau, and he stays alone for a momentous night.

He stays alone, and yet the story says he wrestles with men and with God. In the wrestle he is wounded so that he limps the rest of his life. He demands to know the name of the Being with Whom he wrestles, but the Being turns aside the question and changes his name from Jacob/Heel-Sneak to Godwrestler. The next morning he meets his brother, who embraces and kisses him. They both weep.

The story raises at least two deep questions, and gives several hints toward answers. The first question is: What does it mean to wrestle God, for Jacob and for each of us and for the People Yisrael? (and perhaps for other Peoples?) The second: Why does this Wrestle make it possible for the two brothers to reconcile?

One hint: In Hebrew, his name is Yaakov. The river where he stays “alone” is the Yabok – his own name inside out. And the first word for his wrestling with the Being is yaavayk – again, a wounded version of his own name. So he learns that his own name has many faces he must learn.

Another hint: When Jacob sends gifts to Esau, he says to himself (Gen. 32:21; Everett Fox trans.): “I will wipe the anger from his face, with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!” Four times, the word “face,” in a single verse! And after the Godwrestle, after he has asked the name of his wrestling-partner and been turned aside, after he has named the place where it all happened “God’s Face,” after he and Esau have embraced, he says to his brother, “I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God.”  (Gen. 33: 10)

So he seems to have discovered at least one of the names and faces of the Being with whom he wrestled. And where he began wanting Esau to see his face, he ends by realizing it is crucial for him to see Esau’s face.

So I ask again: What does it mean to wrestle Giod, and why did it matter? I will tell you my answer, but first – stop reading here, or pause the video – and let your own answer come to you. When you feel ready, come back to me.  Then let us together wrestle God ...


A few answers

[Dear folks, I only had time to check with two people to see whether it would be OK to quote their responses to my question: What do they feel is the meaning of “Godwrestling” --  the heart of the Torah portion this Shabbat?   Shalom, AW, editor]


It means to come face-to-face with, and more than that, because face-to-face is not a merger, the faces are still exterior to each 

other. It means acknowledging the pains and injustices of the world and experiencing that they are internal to yourself, both as causer and as 

sufferer. It's a terrible wrestling, and leaves you wounded. You are yourself the hate and the love, and the helplessness to "fix" any of it. 

It all just IS. And you are of it. But in the end you are still walking.

 By Mary Weinstock Gilbert, that Quaker up near Boston whose father grew up 

in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, as yours did in Baltimore.


I believe that, as I've learned from meditation with Ram Dass:  "Self, soul and G!d are one”  When we are searching deeply within, we meet ourselves in our G!d soul. Then we must recognize that the One is within – is -- each of us. Jacob must have seen this. The way to see that ‘face’, that four-in-one face, is to see his brother in his G!d, soul, self. Love (or use another word, compassion, understanding) is what we meet in that reflection of seeing ourselves and G!d in everyone. That way Jacob went forward and Esau ’saw’ himself reflected in this loving way. 

 By Linda Tobin, Cleveland, Board member, The Shalom Center


OK, I'm back again: Jacob said, aloud, with his whole body, heart, mind, soul: “Why is the world this way? I know, my mother taught me, and I know, who I aim to be. Why is the world so built that I needed to lie, to rob, to steal, to make my way there? Is there no other way? There must be other way!”

And his challenging the world as it was, opened up a world as it could be.

Exodus 1:3

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 


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