“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” Genesis 32:25
Setting oneself apart from the community generally has negative connotations in Jewish tradition. Part of the process of atoning for the sin of evil gossip involved the offender withdrawing temporarily from the camp of Israel. In Ethics of the Fathers (2: 5), Hillel warns: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious ish, the man-angel, prior to the showdown with his brother Esau, tends to overshadow a significant detail: after dividing up his camp as part of a pre-emptive military strategy and sending his family across the stream, Jacob is alone.
The most common explanation for Jacob being alone (given in the Talmud) is that he returned to recover some small jars that he had accidentally left behind. According to this account, Jacob’s separation from his camp is unplanned. Nachmanides, however, offers an alternative reading. He suggests that Jacob has choreographed the movements of his camp deliberately; he sends his family and servants across the stream in order to be alone.
Nachmanides seems to suggest that there is something we can learn from Jacob’s decision to withdraw at this point from human company. Jacob knows that his encounter with Esau the next day will decide his destiny and that of his descendants. His decision to spend the night alone removes him from the distraction of those around him. It allows him to engage with his own thoughts, to plan his strategy, to scrutinise his motives and intentions; it is also a time where he can wrestle with and strengthen his relationship with God, before rejoining his camp to confront Esau.
Jewish identity is usually defined collectively: it is formed out of our relation to, and involvement with, the Jewish community around us. There are times, however, when we, too, need to carve out a private space, away from the crowd; a space that allows for introspection and personal and spiritual development. It is these moments that strengthen us as individuals and allow us to play our respective roles, collectively, more successfully, in shaping the destiny of the Jewish people.
Dr Landau teaches midrash at the London School of Jewish Studies