A strange episode occurs towards the beginning of this week’s parsha which has affected the destiny of every one of us. The majority of this week’s parsha seems to discuss very worldy matters. Brotherly feuds and eventual love, fights over a woman, death and internal family issues. In this context, the wrestle between Ya’akov and the mysterious man is very out of place.
Let us review this episode and try and discern what it contributes to the overall picture of the Ya’akov/Esav saga. Ya’akov is left alone “levado” at which point a man wrestles with him until dawn. The fight continues with the damaging of Ya’akov’s thigh and a conversation between the two. This results in Ya’akov being told that his name will be changed to Yisrael. [We have omitted some of the details which we may have cause to refer to later. It is suggested to read the full text in Bereishit 32: 25-33.]
In attempting to discover the identity of the man with whom Ya’akov wrestled, almost all the commentaries state that this was an angel. In addition, Chazal, quoted by Rashi, state that this was “saro shel Esav, the prince of Esav”. This term is generally understood to mean some sort of angel who is connected with Esav.
Let us begin with the assumption that the man was an angel. What brought the mefarshim to this conclusion? We could suggest a number of answers:
- The man tells Ya’akov that his name will be changed. Ordinary people do not offer changes of names to those they meet on the street or, in this case, by a river. Furthermore, until now, all changes of names in the Torah were instituted by Hashem. This suggests that the man who wrestled with Ya’akov was on a mission from God i.e. an angel.
- Ya’akov demands a bracha, a blessing, from the man. He does not agree to release him until he receives such a bracha. This implies that Ya’akov was aware that this man was imbued with special powers and therefore securing a bracha from him was important.
- As we stated above, this whole episode seems a little surreal which may also lead to the conclusion that this was a malach, an angel.
The difference between the above answers lies in whether Ya’akov too, knew that he was wrestling with an angel. According to the second answer, Ya’akov came to this realization whilst entangled with his opponent. If we adopt one of the alternate suggestions, we are left asking ourselves why it is that Ya’akov was so determined to seek a bracha from this man and why did he inquire as to his identity? Even if we assume that the man was indeed an angel, why is this fact hidden from us and from Ya’akov?
In order to answer this question let us ask another. Who fought with whom, or in the language of parents, who started? From the simple words of the passuk, it would appear that the mystery man attacked Ya’akov.as we are told, “vayeavek ish imo, a man wrestled with him” (Berishit 32:25). If that is the case, the obvious question is why? What caused this man to wrestle with Ya’akov? Did he want his money? Was he in his way? The midrash tells us that Ya’akov was left on his own because he returned to collect “pachim ketanim, little jugs”. Whilst the wider significance of these words of Chazal will not be discussed here, maybe this conveys that Ya’akov was not laden with possessions when he was confronted by his assailant. He was therefore not attacked for his money. It is possible that this man was simply looking for a fight. But would he do that in the middle of the night near a deserted river bed? All the above would point to the fact that there was a different, less obvious purpose for the initiation of this struggle. Rashbam explains that the malach fought with Ya’akov in order that he could not escape thus fulfilling Hashem’s promise to him that Esav will cause him no harm. [We assume that this promise is found in Bereishit 31:3 where Hashem instructs Ya’akov to return home and assures him that He will accompany him.]
We can now say that this wrestle was initiated by the “man” with no obvious motive. It is possible that it was up to Ya’akov to discern the reason for this struggle as it progressed. The Torah tells us that the fight continued until dawn leaving Ya’akov much time to consider the significance of the struggle.
Now we can return to our original question. The reason why the Torah does not identify the man as malach, as a messenger of God is because this was something that Ya’akov has to figure out on his own. He had to consider the fact that for some insignificant reason such as the small jugs described in the midrash, he found himself to be alone. And at that particular point, with no apparent motive, he was accosted by a total stranger who wrestled with him all night long. Once he had realized that this was no ordinary fight, he, Ya’akov, would not release the man until the message was revealed. He therefore asked to be blessed. It seems, though, that the message was in the fight itself. He is given the name Yisrael: ‘ki sarita im Elokim ve’im anashim vatuchal, for you have striven with beings Divine and human and have prevailed” (Berieshit 32:29). [Please note that this translation is one of many possible ways to translate this verse.] When did Ya’akov fight with “Elokim and anashim” if not that very night. After all, he began fighting a man and ended fighting a malach. He prevailed in the sense that he understood that there was a message which he needed to discover.
Let us try to understand how the achievement of this new name affects the story. As I learned many years ago from my teacher, Rav Yehuda Gilad, Ya’akov appears to approach his meeting with Esav very differently after overcoming the angel. Whereas before, he was scared and cautious, now he seems to be confident and bold. Earlier he was preparing for war, but when he actually meets Esav, we witness a regular family reunion.
We suggest that the overcoming of the angel, identified as “saro shel Esav” allowed him to review his relationship with Esav and his ability to stand up to him. Yes, he can fight if need be, but he can also speak. Yes, he has overcome his character of Ya’akov, that figure who was always chasing Esav from womb, through birthright to bracha. Now he knows that he can stand up as Yisrael. As Ya’akov says on naming the site of this event “P’niel”: ‘ki raiti Elokim panim el panim vatinatzel nafshi, for I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Bereishit 32:31). If, thinks Ya’akov, I can survive a confrontation with God, surely, I can negotiate a meeting with my brother, Esav. The Rashbam we quoted earlier states that this wrestle was a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise that Esav will do him no harm – now we can understand how Hashem kept that promise to Ya’akov. The Rashbam also says that the angel prevented Ya’akov from fleeing; until he had discovered his name Yisrael he was not ready to meet Esav, The character of Yisrael was what gave Ya’akov the medium through which Hashem’s promise would be fulfilled.
As we know, we do not eat the thigh muscle of the animal, in commemoration of this struggle between the man and Ya’akov. Based on the above, this could be for two reasons. It is to remind us to stand up proud and straight as Yisrael, to stay true to our heritage and thereby realize our destiny.. Secondly it is to challenge us to query the events in which we take part, and, as our forefather Ya’akov did, to discern that there are messages from God in much of what we encounter.
Shabbat shalom – Rav Yonatan