Informed that his brother Esav is advancing toward him with 400 men, Yaakov becomes “afraid and very distressed” (32:8). As a result, he immediately whips into action, dividing his camp into two because should Esav succeed in destroying the front camp, the women and children behind would have a chance to escape. Doing everything he can to prepare for the confrontation, he then turns to Hashem for help. He pleads to Hashem to recall His promises to him and his father, which ensure the survival of him and his progeny.
Having prepared for the imminent encounter with Esav in every possible aspect, Yaakov camps for the evening. What ensues is a puzzling, almost comical encounter with the angel of Esav. They wrestle until the break of dawn. Then, Realizing he cannot defeat Yaakov, the angel dislocates his thigh. The latter then demands a blessing from the angel. The blessing? He changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael.
What is it exactly that transpires that night? Even further, why does it occur specifically at that point in Yaakov’s life? Finally, what practical information can the reader gain from the story?
What seems to have occurred and thus the reason for the placement of the episode becomes clear with a more prudent examination of the events surrounding the encounter.
The struggle between Yaakov and the angel is not necessarily to be understood in its literal sense; and if it is, it is not one of physical might, nor is the understanding of it to be restricted to its literal sense.
In any event, the struggle is a challenge that Hashem places before Yaakov in response to his plea for help. If Yaakov is to emerge victorious that night, he will be deserving of victory on the morrow; if he fails, however, Hashem will allow Esav to kill Yaakov and destroy his camps.
If the confrontation that night would directly decide the outcome of the following day’s confrontation, what then is the parallel between the two? That is, what precisely is the cause and effect? What is the significance of Yaakov’s fight with the angel that it should impact Yaakov’s confrontation with Esav?
The Torah says that Yaakov becomes “frightened and distressed” upon hearing the news of his brother’s advance. Why? Should he not be confident that the promises of Hashem would ensure his safety? For Hashem had promised Yaakov in the beginning of Parshat Vayetzei, “And I will guard you wherever you go…for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken to you” (28:15). Later, Hashem tells him, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you” (31:3).
Rashi notes that Yaakov thinks to himself, “My merits have been reduced through the kindness that You have done for me and the truth that You have showed me. Therefore, I am afraid lest since the time you promised me, I have become soiled with sin and it will cause me to be given over into the hand of Esav” (32:11). Thus Yaakov fears that he may no longer be deserving of the promises.
It appears that Yaakov’s worries are valid. Perhaps he has sinned and his merits have been reduced. However, Hashem listens to Yaakov’s cries; He presents him with an opportunity to prove he is worthy of keeping Hashem’s promises, thus being saved from Esav.
Avraham merited his special relationship with Hashem due to his Chesed, Yitzchak due to his Avodah, and Yaakov due to his Torah. Thus, without Yaakov’s devotion to Hashem and his total immersion in Torah, he would no longer be able to merit the blessings that Hashem promised him. After all, Hashem blessed Yaakov with numerous offspring so that they may remain loyal servants to Hashem, learn his Torah, and continue in the path of the Avot.
With this knowledge we can see that Hashem thus presents Yaakov with the spiritual manifestation of the physical danger he will soon encounter. Hashem presents a situation to Yaakov that challenges his devotion to Hashem and His Torah. The angel wrestles with Yaakov, not in order to pin him to the ground but to corrupt him spiritually, to challenge his beliefs, and to strip away his Torah. Therefore, the encounter is at night when Yaakov is alone; a time when Yaakov is most defenseless and susceptible to the evils of the angel that approaches him.
But with his iron-clad will, and his absolute devotion to Hashem, Yaakov cannot be swayed. Therefore, he holds onto his beliefs. It is this piece-de-resistance of Yaakov Avinu that proves his spiritual superiority over Esav, thus making him worthy of Hashem’s protection for the next day. Hashem will keep His promise so that Yaakov and his progeny will continue in the Derech Hashem.
As mentioned earlier, however, the struggle is not limited to Yaakov alone. In fact, it typifies the ever-constant threat the Jewish nation faces in every generation, in general, and the unremitting struggles the individual faces, in specific. The question is: will the Jew be timid and relent, afraid that the nations might “dislocate his thigh”? Or will the outcome of his progenitors struggle inspire him, giving him the mental fortitude to continue his struggle and overpower his enemy.
In every generation an enemy rises up to destroy the Jewish people. Our enemies, especially our ancient ones, have always known that the secret to our defeat lies in the removal of every facet of Avodat Hashem and Limud Torah from our lives. For without it we are no longer a special, a unique, and an elevated spiritual people. We are no longer greater than any other nation; in fact, if anything, we are far weaker and inferior. Without the Torah, Hashem will not keep his promise to Yaakov, and as a result, Yaakov will become vulnerable to and easily defeated by Esav.
The story of Chanukah provides an excellent example of this. During the period of the Second Beit Hamikdash, Antiochus forbade the study of Torah. He enacted decrees preventing Jews from engaging in Avodat Hashem. The Torah that the Jews kept alive, albeit in secret, prevented our extinction and merited our ultimate defeat of the Greeks. We came out “limping”; the Greeks oppressed us and killed many people, but they could not touch us spiritually.
Many people do not realize it or simply refuse to acknowledge it, but even in the 21st century we are still facing the same struggle that Yaakov, the Jews of the second Beit Hamikdash, and generations before and after, encountered. Too many Jews are assimilating, succumbing to the pressure, the beliefs and “Gashmiut”, of secular society. It is imperative to take note of the struggle and then protect ourselves by learning Hashem’s Torah. For without Torah as the fulcrum of our lives we will be dominated by secular thought and cease to exist as the Jewish People.
Nowadays, in most regions of the earth, no king or despot is set on killing and wiping out the Jews. Nonetheless, the struggle for every individual Jew still exists. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes, “As long as night prevails on earth, as long as man’s consciousness is clouded, and as long as things are intermingled beyond recognition so that they cannot be understood for what they really are, Jacob will have to expect struggles and conflicts.” The individual’s beliefs are being challenged incessantly by secular philosophies and ideals, and as a result, doubts creep into his conscious. Without counteracting this with Torah study, the individual will inevitably lose the struggle. But armed with Torah, strong-willed and steadfast in his beliefs, the individual can win the struggle. He can overcome the Yetzer Hara and the persistent secular attacks. As Hashem told Kayin, “Halo Im Teitiv Seit Veim Lo Teitiv Lapetach Chatat Rovetz Vielecha Teshukato Viata Timshol Bo,” “Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it” (Bereshit 4:7). Each individual should strive to master his Yetzer Hara, to become completely devoted to Hashem and His Torah that the truth becomes so celestially clear that secular concepts will subsequently have no profound effect on us. If we work on developing ourselves spiritually, we might be scathed, but we will be victorious and aptly rewarded, just as Yaakov Avinu was.
When Yaakov emerges the victor, the angel, and later on Hashem, renames him Yisrael. For Yaakov had “striven with the Divine and with men and… [had] overcome” (32:29). The name Yisrael is a conjugation of “striven” and “Elokim”. Yaakov walks away from the struggle a new man. Giving only a cursory glance one may suspect that Yaakov lost, being that he limps away. But in fact he has transcended the heights of spirituality to such an extent that he merits a new name. Thus the angel’s blessing is that he should remain Yisrael forever, that he should forever remain on the same elevated spiritual plateau he was on at the moment he conquered the angel and merited the blessing.
And this is what every Jew should emulate and strive for: to be inspired by Yaakov’s triumph so that he may emerge from his own struggles victorious, so can truly merit the title of Ben Yisrael.