Judaism: The Sinew's Significance
Parshat Vayishlach contains one of the few mitzvoth in Sefer Bereishit, the prohibition of eating the gid hanosheh the displaced (sciatic) sinew of the hip joint. The prohibition appears at the end of the recording of a seminal event in the life of Yaakov Avinu.
Returning to his father’s home, he knows he will encounter his brother Esau. He prepares for this meeting in several ways, but after crossing the Yabok River with his family, he crosses back alone to retrieve some small forgotten jars. While alone and vulnerable, Esau’s guardian angel confronts him. They fight, and although Yaakov is not killed, he is injured in his hip joint. As the sun shines on him, he hobbles away. Therefore, Bnei Yisroel do not eat gid hanosheh to this day.
While we look for reasons behind various mitzvoth, and we might say that we are prohibited from eating this sinew because of Yaakov’s injury, we must keep this mitzvah simply because Hashem so commanded. However, we should still study the mitzvah and its placement in the Torah to derive lessons for our lives and for Klal Yisroel.
First, we must be cognizant of the miracle of Yaakov’s surviving a fight with an angel. The prohibition of eating this sinew, says Rabbi Gifter, is to remind us of this miracle and awaken in us feelings of teshuvah. Along these lines, Rabbi Wolbe notes that the root of nosheh means forget. Citing mystical sources, eating of this sinew will encourage forgetfulness of Hashem and Torah. Using reverse reasoning, then, refraining from eating this sinew should encourage reconnecting to Hashem.
This prohibition is alluded to by Isaiah as he admonishes his generation. Isaiah talks of “the word Hashem sent upon Yaakov,” that word being the prohibition of eating this sinew, a mitzvah that was revealed directly through Yaakov’s experience although not because of it. Isaiah describes the people who see the enemies God has brought upon them and the destruction they have wrought but do not recognize the hand of God in their troubles as Yaakov did when he was injured. Instead of mending their ways, they arrogantly assert they will rebuild bigger and better.
Rabbi Avraham Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuvtakes this prohibition and puts it in the context of the entire episode in Yaakov’s life and of Jewish history. Contemplating his imminent meeting with Esau and the possibility of war, Yaakov sends multiple tributes to Esau. Rather than send them all at once, he sends servants separately, each bearing his separate gifts, and he instructs his servants to leave space (and time) between one gift and the next.
This, says Rabbi Schorr, is prophetic of times when calamities will come upon Yaakov’s descendents. Yaakov is entreating Hashem to leave space and time between calamities so that Bnei Yisroel can ponder their circumstances and come to realize that all this comes from Hashem, that it is time to mend our ways and do teshuvah, not go blindly about our business.
When we do not eat the gid hanosheh, we are affirming our belief that everything comes from Hashem, whether it is Yaakov’s injury, the devastation communities suffered from Superstorm Sandy, or the cities in Southern Israel and the chayalim who heroically defend them. The prohibition of eating the gid hanoshehis meant to encourage this personal contemplation and urge each of us to do teshuvah in the area we personally need to do so.
This prohibition continues to this day because the war against Esau, his descendent Amalek, and the yetzer horo he represents continues to this day. Esau wants to convince us that everything is happenstance, that there is no Divine Providence. He wanted to raise the dust in his struggle with Yaakov so that Yaakov’s vision of God’s holy throne would be obscured, so that he would not attribute his injury to God’s Divine plan but rather to the result of the struggle.
But Yaakov’s mission and the mission of his descendents is to reveal God’s presence in the world, says Rabbi Tatz. We are witnesses to Hashem’s presence and involvement in the world, and Amalek will fight to the death to eradicate any evidence and testimony to His immanence. The very argument of our enemies, especially current journalists, that so little damage was done by the rockets raining down on southern Israel and therefore Israel’s response is “disproportionate” is an argument not for the ineffectiveness of the missiles but for the Divine Who stands guard for His people and will not let them be harmed.
The gid hanosheh wants us to forget, but we must continue to remember and continue to bear witness to Hashem’s immanence in the world.
Amalek does not give up. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch so eloquently writes, Amalek may harm us physically so that we limp through history and have difficulty walking upright among the nations, but our strength is not physical. While we are weak physically, Esau cannot prevail because our strength comes from a higher, spiritual source. The gid hanosheh reminds us to look to Hashem for our strength through our actions that glorify His will rather than attribute our success or failure to our physical or military strength.
Yaakov clearly understood that this physical world is all an illusion. As he left this battleground, he called this place Peniel, the place where he had seen the inner, spiritual essence of God’s world says Halekach Vehalebuv. We discard the gid hanosheh to signify that we too realize that all this world has to offer is worthless. Yaakov now got the additional name of Yis-roel (li rosh - an anagram for Yisroel) because when we look at the world logically, we will be convinced of the illusory nature of that which entices us and not fall into the trap of quick fixes.
The Sichot Mussar takes this idea further to the continuing dialogue between Yaakov and the angel. Yaakov wants to know the name of the angel, just as the angel asked for his name, but the angel merely asks rhetorically, “Why do you want to know my name?” The angel is not deflecting the question; he is telling Yaakov that his strength lies in his elusiveness, that no one really questions who he is. But we must remember to question what appears real.
An interesting question arises. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to cite the mitzvah of not eating the gid hanosheh immediately after the battle rather than when Yaakov was healed? The Mishchat Shemen citing the Chatam Sofer, answers very rationally. During the battle you know your enemy. It is only after the battle that you need to be reminded that the war is not over, that the yetzer horo is still fighting even though he has slunk away momentarily.
The fight goes on to this day, and the gid hanosheh reminds us of the ongoing war.
Rabbi Zev Leff in Shiurei Binah offers a beautiful interpretation to this entire episode. Yaakov was merely a man, not an angel who has no hip joint, who is always ready to do God’s bidding. Therefore, an angel can never fail and can never be depressed. But Yaakov was a mortal. Yet he continued to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle. He was injured, but he never succumbed to depression. Although he was limping, he did not sit down in defeat. With the strength to push through this dark period, he came out stronger, and Hashem shone the light of the sun on him.
Throughout our history, we’ve been wounded, yet we never gave up. We have emerged from each blow stronger. The Babylonian exile gave rise to the Babylonian Talmud; the holocaust gave rise to the State of Israel. We take our injuries and discard them as we do the gid hanosheh. We will not be depressed. We cause our injuries to be meaningless as we move on beyond them. Sometimes we are wounded as was Yaakov, but we emerge to prevail as did Yisroel.
Our final idea in analyzing this episode concerns Yaakov being alone. The Daas Zekainim notes that Yaakov’s children were responsible to escort Yaakov and not leave him alone, as all of Bnei Yisroel is responsible to escort tzadik and important person on his journeys. Yaakov’s children did not realize the importance of accompanying Yaakov back across the river. Had they been with Yaakov, Yaakov would not have been vulnerable to the attack.
Rav Lugassi teaches us that when we accompany someone on his way, we enable the Divine presence to join us. Therefore, while one may hint at someone that he need no longer accompany him, one must not tell him to leave and go home, for then one is telling the Divine presence that it too may leave.
On a more esoteric note, Asufat Maarachot tells us that Hakodosh Boruch Hu always accompanies all of us through life. Sometimes we move away from Him and get injured spiritually. But it’s just a dislocation; it’s not a permanent severance from our Maker. When the sun comes out in the light of day, every Jew is a Jew. He just needs to remember.
The gid hanosheh is the reminder. It reminds us that we are God’s witnesses to the world, that the physical world is vanity of vanities, and that Hashem is always with us and will give us strength to endure all hardships. Our strength lies not in the physical prowess of my arm but in the hidden name of Hashem to which we bear witness and that we decree to the entire world.
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