The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells of the mysterious assailant who began wrestling with Yaakov the night before his feared encounter with his brother, Esav. Yaakov wrestled the entire night against his attacker – who we later find out was an angel – until he finally subdued him, but not before suffering a serious injury to his gid ha-nasheh (sciatic nerve) in the thigh. The Torah tells that in commemoration of this event, we refrain from eating the gid ha-nasheh of animals (32:33).
Different explanations have been offered for why this event was deemed worthy of eternal commemoration through a special command. Most famously, perhaps, the Sefer Ha-chinukh (3) writes that we recall this incident because of its symbolic message – that we will always survive and triumph. Just as Yaakov was innocently assaulted and forced to struggle throughout the night, so would his descendants be senselessly persecuted and forced to struggle to survive throughout their long, dark “night” of exile. And just as Yaakov suffered a painful injury, so would Am Yisrael suffer much pain over the course its history. However, like Yaakov, our nation has survived despite the assaults it had endured – and this, according to the Sefer Ha-chinukh, is the eternal message commemorated through the command of gid ha-nasheh.
This explanation, however, fails to explain why we commemorate this event by refraining from eating the part of the body where Yaakov suffered his injury. Seemingly, if the intent is to memorialize Yaakov’s experience, then the Torah should have specifically required eating the gid ha-nasheh, rather than forbidding its consumption.
Chizkuni explains differently, suggesting that this prohibition serves as a punishment, of sorts, for Yaakov’s children’s failure to properly protect their father. Yaakov came under attack because he was left alone along the riverbank after bringing his family and belongings across the river (“va-yivateir Yaakov levado” – 32:25). Chizkuni asserts that Yaakov’s youthful, able-bodied sons were to blame for his vulnerability that night, as they should have never allowed him to find himself alone in the middle of the night, where he would be susceptible to attack. Forever more, Yaakov’s descendants must refrain from the gid ha-nasheh as a reminder that we are to ensure never to allow any member of our nation to be alone and vulnerable, and to instead see to it that every person enjoys the comfort and security of being accompanied and supported by his or her fellow Jews.
Seforno takes a different approach, suggesting, insightfully, that we refrain from the gid ha-nasheh so that Yaakov’s injured body part would retroactively be regarded as unimportant. This prohibition, according to Seforno, is intended to lead us to overlook and disregard Yaakov’s injury, to see only his triumph, and not the pain he sustained along the process. By refraining from the gid ha-nasheh, we convey the message that this part of the body is not especially important, or even something we care about, and thus Yaakov’s injury is not to be accorded much significance.
Normally, when enduring a difficult and challenging experience, we tend to do just the opposite – to focus our attention on the unpleasant and unwanted aspects of the experience, and on the scars that might remain. In the wake of Yaakov’s wrestle with the angel, symbolizing our struggle against various forms of hardship and adversity, we are told to overlook, as much as possible, the “injury,” the pain and the discomfort, and to focus instead on the ultimate triumph, on the long-term success, on the positive elements of the challenges that come our way. The command of gid ha-nasheh, as understood by Seforno, represents the Torah’s demand that we approach life’s struggles with optimism, that we strive to avoid negativity and focus less on the “injury” and more on all there is to celebrate and appreciate even in the face of adversity.