Jacob was limping, but he had survived the nighttime struggle at Penuel. Nervously awaiting a confrontation with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob was attacked by a mysterious opponent. With the approach of dawn, the stranger dislocated Jacob’s thigh.
“Therefore the Israelites do not eat the displaced nerve (gid ha-nasheh) on the hip joint to this very day, because he touched Jacob’s thigh on the displaced nerve.” (Gen. 32:33)
What is the significance of this prohibition? Do we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve only to commemorate a mysterious wrestling match that took place thousands of years ago?
A Vision of Violence
At first glance, the prohibition of gid ha-nasheh appears to be yet another limitation that the Torah places on eating meat. While the Torah permits the consumption of meat, it instituted a number of restrictions, such as which animals may be eaten, how they are to be slaughtered, how their blood should be handled, and so on. These regulations indicate that we may not deal with animals as we wish, without regard for their welfare. On the contrary, we have moral obligations and responsibilities towards animals.
The prohibition of gid ha-nasheh, however, is meant to project a broader ethical aspiration, beyond the issue of how we should treat animals.
According to tradition, the stranger who fought Jacob that night was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob’s opponent symbolized the lifestyle of the hunter, a man of violence and conquest whose prophetic blessing was that he would live by his sword. This nighttime struggle was not a private experience, a personal event in Jacob’s life. It was a vision for all times. It epitomizes our constant battle against belligerent foes who claim the right to subjugate others by virtue of their physical strength and military prowess.
This struggle appeared to Jacob in its most unadorned fashion, without any pretense of gallantry and shining swords to mask its visceral violence and naked aggression. For the truth is that all wars, no matter how ‘civilized,’ are nothing more than a brutal struggle to subdue and conquer.
If there is one area in which the human race is continually advancing, it is the art of war. Methods and tools of combat constantly grow ever more sophisticated. We have progressed from primitive spears and swords to guns and canons, and onwards to modern warfare with armored tanks, fighter jets, and nuclear bombs. And yet the essence of war remains the same: one-on-one combat between two opponents. All warfare boils down to the violent struggle to overcome and subdue, where victory is achieved by felling one’s adversary.
By not eating the gid ha-nasheh, we demonstrate our revulsion at unprovoked aggression and violence. Just as Jacob fought Esau’s angel that night, we also oppose the cynical belief in “the right of might.” There is no legal or moral right to terrorize and subjugate those who are weaker.
While nationalism provides many benefits, in its extreme form it can descend into imperialism and fascism. As Rav Kook wrote in Olat Re’iyah (vol. I, p. 234):
“Nationalism is a lofty emotion in its natural, pristine state. But if it is not directed towards the highest goal - the aspiration of universal happiness and perfection - it will end up crossing the boundaries of morality.”
We may need a strong army to defend ourselves, and we may need to slaughter animals to provide for our physical needs. But by refraining from eating the gid ha-nasheh, we demonstrate that our goal is not to subjugate others, whether man or beast. Even as we eat the meat of animals, we avoid the sciatic nerve that allows the body to stand upright. This is a moral sensitivity which should govern every form of interpersonal interaction, enabling all to benefit from a Divine-spirited and harmonious existence.