In this week’s Parasha, Yaakov, before his climatic meeting with Esau, having accompanied his family safely over the “wadi”, finds himself confronted by a “man”; a messenger from Hashem, an angel representing Esau: “And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until day break. And when he saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was put out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
…And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he limped upon his thigh.” (Bereishit, Chapter 32, Verses 25 – 32)
Yaakov was involved in a struggle throughout the night. He prevailed in this extraordinary confrontation. The “man”, reveals himself to be a messenger of Hashem, consequently informing Yaakov of a name change scheduled for the near future, where he will be named Yisrael in addition to Yaakov. Yisrael – “for you have contended with the Divine and with man and you have prevailed”.
Yet, even though Yaakov had succeeded in this incredible fete, we are told that: “As the sun rose upon him, he limped upon his thigh”. He did not leave this confrontation completely unscathed. Yaakov had been injured. To mark this injury through eternity, we are told that:
“Therefore the Children of Israel eat not of the sinew of the vein, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, to this day; because he touched the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh in the sinew of the vein”. (Ibid, Ibid, Verse 33)
To understand this episode, from a slightly different perspective, let us firstly note Yaakov’s original prayer to Hashem regarding his future meeting with Esau: “Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau”. (Ibid, Ibid, Verse12)
In his comments to the seemingly superfluous plea: “…the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau”, the Or Hachaim Hakadosh notes, that Yaakov feared his brother on two counts:
Firstly, Yaakov feared that Esau would confront him as a brother. That he would indeed “come in peace”, but that hidden in that peaceful reunion would be a danger, not yet obvious, but nevertheless prevalent.
A hidden danger is harder to fight, for it catches one unawares. When all seems well, one finds oneself suddenly amiss, in the middle of a crisis totally unforeseen. Yaakov’s first and foremost worry is that Esau will present himself as a brother, but that behind the brotherly front there will be a long-term objective to harm him. Alternatively, Esau will come truly in peace, but as a result of peacefully living with Esau, Yaakov is worried of the social and cultural repercussions, that will inevitably influence his family.
Thus, initially, Yaakov prays for protection from “his brother”. He is less concerned about a direct physical confrontation with Esau, and therefore only prays for protection from “Esau” afterwards, almost as an afterthought.
Essentially, Yaakov is faced with two possible scenarios, a physical threat, or a spiritual threat, the latter is the more dangerous of the two, it’s effects are much more far fetching and the damage control much more difficult. In one of his many beautiful comments regarding Yaakov and the messenger of Hashem, Rav Yosef Nechemya Kornitzer comments in a similar fashion to the Or Hachaim:
It would appear that over the last two parshiot, that Yaakov was faced with three specific dangers, one immediately following the other.
Firstly, Esau was determined to kill Yaakov, as a result of the episode regarding the berachot. Immediately following Yaakov’s “escape from Esau”, in the house of Lavan, he finds himself challenged financially. We are told that above and beyond cheating him on his wedding day, Lavan changed his financial agreements with Yaakov “ten times”.
Thirdly, having escaped Lavan, financially stable, and physically capable, he is faced with the greatest danger: “Esau – the brother”.
Having evaluated the situation, having seen that Yaakov has remained unharmed physically, and financially. Having noted that Yakov’s adherence to his beliefs has given him the strength to survive, Esau changes his tactics. Esau will not confront his brother in physical battle, nor is he interested in attempting to outwit him in the financial markets, the approach from now onwards will be emancipation. Esau will confront Yaakov as a brother, with “friendship and love”, he will welcome Yaakov into his society with open hands.
Here lies the greatest danger of all. What has protected Yaakov over the years, what has given him the confidence and strength to both face up to, and deal with, all the challenges set before him, is his faith. Yaakov’s stubborn unfaltering belief in Hashem, has provided him with the ultimate weapon against all the scenarios that have befallen him. If Esau can falter that belief, if he can influence Yaakov, then he will be shaking the foundations of all that Yaakov is. His strength lies in his faith, so that is where he must be challenged.
We see this message so clearly summarized in the battle through the night with the messenger of Hashem – the Heavenly representative of Esau. Yaakov struggles with the Angel physically throughout the night, yet he prevails. However, the verse is quick to add that specifically when the sun rose, when all seemed to be well, when the enemy was apparently no longer, when we are accepted in all walks of life – it is then that Yaakov begins to limp.
It is as if Hashem specifically brought about this confrontation in the middle of the night, in order to warn Yaakov and his descendants, that there is in fact a much greater danger that we face, above and beyond the physical one. The real danger lies when all seems well, when we reach the situation of “Vayeshev Yaakov”, when complacency sets in. When we are financially stable, and at peace with our neighbors, when the “sun begins to rise”, it is invariably at this stage that Yaakov begins to limp.
The Talmud in Massechet Rosh Hashana (19b) relates to the fact that during the times of the Bet Hamikdash, Am Yisrael celebrated many “minor festivals”. However, after the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, these festivals were all cancelled, excepting two: Chanuka and Purim.
Chanuka is a festival that celebrates the Maccabean revolt, and the rededication of the Bet Hamikdash. As we are all well aware, little if any emphasis is placed on the strategical military successes of the Chashmonaim and their followers. The Mitzvat Hayom of Chanuka, is to light the lights of the Chanukia – to commemorate the rededication of the Temple. Our enemies tried, and very nearly succeeded in luring us away from our beliefs. On Chanuka we celebrate how the few believers overcame the many, how despite the pressures, the attraction of a pluralistic live and let live society, we succeeded in retaining our identity.
Purim, on the other hand, is clearly a festival that represents the ongoing miracle of the survival of the Jewish people physically, despite the plans of the Hamans and Hitlers of the world, who never distinguished between a believer and non-believer.
Chazal could well be emphasizing for us, that particularly now, when there is no Mikdash, when we are involved in exilic battles daily. Specifically now, we must celebrate these two minor festivals, because they represent the two prevalent dangers of the “night”, of the exile.
Yet, just as the Or Hachaim and Rav Yosef Nechemya commented, one danger is more severe than the other, thus, we celebrate Purim for one day, but we celebrate Chanuka for eight days.
The Midrash beautifully summarizes our theme:
“Rabbi Levi comments that on two occasions in his life did Yitzchak tremble. The first occasion was when he was bound at the Akeidah, the other when Esau came bearing gifts. Yet specifically regarding the latter we are told that ‘Yitzchak trembled very much’.