Yaakov's encounter with the "אִישׁ", described in Bereshit 32, is one of the more enigmatic episodes in Torah. Everything from the identity of the assailant to his purpose in attacking is unknown. The scene is depicted often in the visual arts, but only rarely in music. One exception is Shlomo Carlebach's song, "וְנִשְׂגַּב ה' לְבַדּוֹ", available here. His rendition, both in his choice of lyrics and the accompanying tune, makes one question the message behind the original episode.
An Eschatological Story?
Carlebach's song combines two distinct verses which at first glance seem totally unconnected. The first line of the song comes from Yeshayahu 2:11,17 which speaks of the end of days when idolatry will be destroyed, the mighty will fall, and Hashem alone will emerge victorious. The second describes Yaakov's remaining alone and his struggle with the "אִישׁ". Is there any relationship between the two?
- Carlebach is not the first to connect the two verses, and was likely inspired to do so by Bereshit Rabbah 77:1. The Midrash states that all that Hashem is to do in the future, He had the righteous do already in this world. As an example, it points to Hashem's standing alone, exalted, in the future, with Yaakov's standing alone in Bereshit 32. What might this Midrash be suggesting about how to understand Yaakov's struggle?
- Is it possible to read into Yaakov's struggle an eschatological message, relevant not just for Yaakov personally but for future generations as well? Who was the "אִישׁ"? Was Yaakov's victory over him a victory for man or for God? Was it somehow a precursor to Hashem's future smiting of enemies? For elaboration, see Wrestling With Angels and Men.
A Cheerful Struggle?
Carlebach's tune is very upbeat, and at first glance quite incongruous with a mysterious nocturnal attack. The verses present Yaakov alone, fighting an unknown assailant, and even emerging lame from the struggle, making one wonder why Carlebach chose this tune rather than something more ominous. Is there anything in the story which is uplifting or cheerful? This depends on how one understands the message of the encounter. In fact, commentators have read into it everything from a threatening attack or punishment to encouragement and reassurance. See Wrestling with Angels and Men for more.