Yaakov’s Limp and Its Relationship to his Encounter

And the sun was shining upon him when he left P’nuel and he was limping because of his thigh. (Sefer Beresheit 32:32)

1. The commentators disagree over whether Yaakov’s encounter was a physical event or prophetic vision

Yaakov is alone prior to this meeting with Esav. He has an altercation with a man. Yaakov and the stranger struggle. Eventually, Yaakov overcomes the man. Yaakov is injured in this battle. In the morning, he is limping from his injury. Our Sages explain that this man was an angel representing Esav.[1]

According to Nachmanides, the events described in the Torah actually occurred. In other words, Yaakov actually engaged in physical battle. The attacking angel assumed the form of a human being. According to this interpretation of the events, Yaakov’s limp was the result of an injury incurred during the struggle with the angel.[2] However, Maimonides and others disagree with Nachmanides and contend that the battle took place in a prophetic vision. No actual encounter occurs and no physical struggle took place. According to this interpretation of the account, Yaakov’s limp is more difficult to explain.[3]

2. Abravanel suggests that Yaakov’s limp demonstrates the impact of the prophetic vision upon the dreamer

The answer adopted by Don Yitzchak Abravanel and many others is that the limp was not the result of actual physical trauma. They explain that a prophetic vision is very real to the prophet. The experience of the vision can best be compared to a dream. Often, our dreams are vivid. Movement and sensation can accompany dreams. It is not unusual for a dream to influence us even after waking. It may affect our mood. We may even be left with sensations. If this is true for dreams, these affects can also occur through prophecy. The struggle Yaakov experienced in his prophecy was absolutely real to him. He felt the blow of his adversary. This pain remained with him after waking. Consequently he limped.[4]

3. Gershonides argues that the limp reveals the influence of the imaginative facility in the design of the dream

However, Gershonides provides an alternative explanation for the limp. He suggests that the limp was not a consequence of the dream. Instead, it preceded the dream. Common dreams – that are not prophetic in nature – are often woven from the events and experiences that occurred in the dreamer’s recent past or during the day preceding the dream. Dreams are also sometimes provoked by sensations that are experienced while asleep. Many people have woken from dreams featuring ringing or buzzing sounds to discover that their alarm clock is buzzing or their phone is ringing. Geshonides suggests that the prophetic dream takes advantage of that same facility. Its message is woven from recent experiences, events, and sensations. It uses these elements as the raw material from which to construct the prophetic vision. Yaakov fell to sleep feeling discomfort from his aching hip. His prophetic dream-vision used this sensation as raw material from which to construct its message. Yaakov’s subsequent limp was not a product of the dream; it was an antecedent to the vision.[5]

This interpretation of Yaakov’s limp provides an important insight into Gershonides’ understanding to the mechanism through which prophetic vision are constructed. It seems that both the common dream and the prophetic dream are products on an imaginative force within the human being. However, the content of the common dream is produced by this imaginative force acting without any external guidance. In contrast, in the instance of the prophetic dream, the imaginative force is guided in its work by the prophetic influence. In other words, the imaginative force is harnessed and used to create a vision that expresses the intended prophetic message.

Yaakov’s Two Names

And Hashem said to him, “Your name has been Yaakov. Your name should no longer be Yaakov, rather Yisrael should be your name.” And He called him Yisrael. (Sefer Beresheit 35:10)

1. Both Avram and Yaakov received new names from Hashem

Yaakov vanquishes the angel who opposes him. He demands that the angel bestow his blessing upon him. The angel accedes. He tells Yaakov that henceforth his name will be Yisrael. This name communicates the outcome of their encounter – that Yaakov has striven with angels and overcome them. Yaakov arrives at Bet El and he has a vision. In this vision, Hashem confirms the angel’s blessing. He tells Yaakov that his name shall henceforth be Yisrael.

Avraham had a similar encounter with Hashem. When the first Patriarch is introduced, his name is Avram. Later, Hashem tells Avram that He has changed his name to Avraham. However, although both Avraham and Yisrael received their new names from Hashem, the bestowal of the name had a different effect in each instance. The Talmud explains that with the bestowal of the new name, Avraham’s old name became obsolete and inappropriate. The Talmud explains that use of the old name – Avram is prohibited.[6] According to Magen, Avraham the Talmud is establishing an actual legal prohibition. We are not permitted to refer to Avraham by his previous name.[7] In fact, once the Torah announces the new name – Avraham, it never again refers to our first forefather by his original name.

2. Yaakov’s new name did not supplant his original name

In Yaakov’s case, his new name Yisrael, does not supplant his original name. The Torah continues to refer to him by the name Yaakov, interchanging the old name with the new name. According to Chizkuni, the different effects of receiving a new name are reflected in our passage. Our passage begins with an acknowledgment of Yaakov’s original name. This acknowledgment is intended to indicate the status of the original name after the bestowal of the name Yisrael. The original name will not be discarded. Both names will remain appropriate.[8]

Chizkuni’s comments do not completely explain the different outcomes. He demonstrates that the difference is reflected in the passage. However, the reason for the difference still requires an explanation. Perhaps, the simplest explanation is that the name Yaakov communicates its own important message. This message was not replaced or rendered obsolete with Yaakov’s new name. Instead, the name Yisrael communicated a message that supplemented the message of the original name. What was the message in the name Yaakov? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that the name communicated a prophecy regarding the future of the Jewish people. The name Yaakov is derived from the term ekev. This term means “heal” or “end”. Yaakov received this name because he emerged from his mother’s womb grasping the heel of his firstborn brother Esav. Sforno suggests that the manner in which he was born and the name he received foretold the destiny of the Jewish people. They were destined to be dominated by their older brother Esav. But in the end of days – in the Messianic era, Yaakov’s descendants will overcome the dominance of their brother and all others who will oppress them.[9] Yaakov retained this name even after receiving the name Yisrael because this message remained true and relevant.

Chizkuni offers his own explanation for the retention of the name Yaakov. He notes that Esav treated the name Yaakov as a pejorative. He contended that Yaakov had twice cheated him. He had tricked him into trading away his rights as firstborn. Then, Yaakov had stolen the blessings that Yitzchak had intended for him. He attempted to transform the name Yaakov into a reference to these two instances in which – according to his claims – Yaakov had cheated him. Replacement of the name Yaakov might suggest that Esav’s claim had some substance. Those aware of Esav’s contention might assume that Yaakov was ashamed of his original name because it reflected qualities of dishonesty and deceit that truly were elements of Yaakov’s character. In order to discredit Esav’s claims, Yaakov was instructed to proudly retain his original name and supplement it with the name Yisrael.[10]

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1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:25.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:2.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 42.
4. Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, p. 344.
5. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 205.
6. Mesechet Berachot 13a.
7. Rav Avraham Avlee, Magen Avraham Commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 156:1, note 1.
8. Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 35:10.
9. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 31:26.
10. Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 35:10.