Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter what I think is one of the more famous stories of the Bible: Jacob wrestling with an unknown opponent. Various commentaries and thinkers consider his opponent to be everything from G-d Himself to a mysterious man or some sort of angel or divine messenger. At the end of the night, Jacob receives his new name, Israel, from his opponent, which is affirmed by G-d later in the story (Genesis 35:10).
Here’s how the Bible recounts this brief episode:
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’
But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’
The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’
‘Jacob,’ he answered.
Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with [HaShem] and with humans and have overcome.’
Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’
But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw [HaShem] face to face, and yet my life was spared.’
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.” (Genesis 32:22-31, NIV).
When we put this episode back into context, we can start to look at it on a deeper level than just two wrestlers. Leading up to this point, Jacob is separating and dividing his camp in hopes of pacifying his brother, Esau, who we might recall he stirred up some trouble with previously. Through all that G-d has blessed him with and all the divine promise that rests on his shoulders, the panic of Jacob in this moment betrays another emotion: doubt.
Jacob doubts that G-d will save him from his brother. In his prayers, he even refers to himself as “unworthy” of G-d’s blessings that have already been bestowed on him (Genesis 32:10).
We may be meant to understand Jacob’s overnight wrestling match as one that is quite literal (I mean, he does injure his hip in the process, after all), but there’s also a very clear existential crisis going on here. Jacob doubts his own worth, doubts G-d’s fulfillment of the promises sworn to his ancestors, and fears the very real possibility of being killed along with his entire family. This dark night of the soul, or spiritual crisis, is one which Jacob chooses to face alone, after sending his family and servants on ahead of him.
In some ways this episode reminds me of the forty year period the Israelites will later wander in the desert before they are prepared to enter the Promised Land; Jacob sends his family ahead but is not yet ready himself. In other ways, Jacob’s spiritual crisis reminds me of the Hermetic alchemical process.
Jacob’s Magnum Opus
For the sake of this post, I want to look briefly at four key stages in the Hermetic alchemical process that are mirrored in Jacob’s dark night of the soul and renaming into Israel. Variations to this methodology exist, and I’m not intending to give more weight to any particular school of thought here. My focus for this post is purely on textual analysis, not the particulars of early modern magic.
Traditionally there is a stage of alchemy associated with blackening. We might also think of this as a process of dissolution. What is being dissolved here is our sense of ego, or individuality, within the world. This could look like ego death, but it could also look like extreme egoism. In Jacob’s story, it’s the approach of night and the consumption of the story with his spiritual crisis. The wrestling match isn’t something which happens with no warning. Rather, it’s the climax of a crisis we witness slowly building in the early verses of the portion until all that remains is the dark of the night and Jacob’s opponent.
While early alchemists were guided by the color change scheme I’m describing here, another term we might pair to this stage is separation. We get this stage repeatedly in Jacob’s story, whether we’re talking about his separation from Esau, his separation from Laban in Parashat Vayeitzet, the separation from G-d he feels when returning to his homeland, his division of his camp into multiple parties, or his separation of himself from his family directly before his encounter in the night. The point of this separation is to divide the impure from the pure (much as Jacob does later in commanding that his camp leave their foreign gods behind, Gen. 35:2-4). The wrestling match itself also fits into these stages because there Jacob is facing his crisis head-on. It is no longer purely darkness around him, but also the will to live within himself pushing back against it.
So, in this stage, we understand that purification emerges from conscious awareness of the impure.
In this stage, a balance between the separated elements is achieved. Literally the term citrinitas refers to the yellow color of the new dawn. In Jacob’s story, that is the breaking of the next day. His dark night of the soul has been survived, or, as scripture records it, he “wrestled with G-d and with humans, and overcame” (Gen. 32:28). Importantly, as with all stories in the Bible, nothing is being entirely wiped away and Jacob is not being protected from his fears or any obstacles. What is happening is that his fears and the obstacles he faces have not won out over his own courage and strength. The dawning of new light is a reinvigoration of the strength within him to face whatever circumstances approach next.
This is our integration stage. It’s the part of the journey where fear and courage, sins and achievements, are all re-unified into one sense of self. Both yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) are present within the one. The new dawn’s light goes with us. The citrinitas is not just a peak experience we have on a mountaintop somewhere, but part of ourselves, a reminder of our strength alongside our fears, now all contained within us and a power we are able to draw on again in the future. Jacob makes peace with his crisis, and receives a new name for it, now ready to cross over the river, continue receiving G-d’s blessings, and continue at peace and in control of himself through whatever storms are coming.
Overcoming Our Own Dark Nights
We might think of wrestling with G-d as something that fits well within the scope of fairy tales and mythology, but certainly not our own lives. I think that’s rarely the case though.
By my reckoning, one of the most enduring curses of modernity is that hyper-rationalism has eclipsed the hierarchical organization of ourselves which once put G-d ahead of all creation (“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” as Nietzsche proclaimed it). What we’re left with is a void to our sense of direction, self, and purpose which we are challenged to wrestle with, just as Jacob encountered in this portion of Genesis. We are surrounded by the darkness, and it’s up to each of us whether we will take the alchemical process any further.
Like Jacob, our dark night of the soul emerges from a sense of great distance from G-d or unworthiness of blessing. Through a process of purification, whether by separating ourselves from activities and qualities which miss the mark to facing our fears as directly as possible (and so differentiating ourselves from them), we too can reach the daybreak of uncovering our own strength to manage life this far out from our Creator.
There, the Great Work remains just as it did for the early alchemists and hermetic magicians. It is a processing of bringing that daybreak, that solar strength into ourselves permanently. Jacob’s transmutation into Israel is not a clean slate after which he is unbothered or left unaffected by additional obstacles. His problems actually seem to pick right back up almost immediately after his reunion with Esau.
But what matters, and what has changed is that Israel knows his inner strength to overcome those obstacles. His fear of death and failure and worthlessness have left him. He has seen the face of the master of all these things and survived. His reconnection with G-d realigns him to understanding himself as a force through which G-d enacts His will in the world. Israel has G-d on his side, and nothing will fell him without the direction of G-d Himself.
Likewise, we can draw on our own past triumphs when we face crises of any magnitude. And in doing so, we may discover, like Jacob, that our distance from G-d is not so great after all, that our sense of worthlessness is illusory, and that our role in the story of creation is still being breathed into existence.