Conquering Our Evil Inclinations by Shmuel Garber


In Parashat VaYishlach there is a fascinating story in which Yaakov forgets a few jars and returns to retrieve them. On his way an angel meets him and a fight ensues which lasts all night. When the fight is over, the angel blesses Ya'akov and changes his name to Yisrael. There are a number of glaring question that are asked on this section. Why was Yaakov attacked? What is the significance of the Gid HaNasheh? Who was the angel that attacked? Finally, why does Yaakov get his name, Yisrael, from here?

Rav Kaminetzky explains that the reason the angel attacked was because Yaakov was alone. If Yaakov were with others, he would have been fine. Chazal suggest that the angel, who could not defeat, but only injure Yaakov, teaches us a lesson about unity. When the angel touched Yaakov's Gid HaNasheh he created a dietary restriction that is still held today. This restriction separates Jews from the rest of the world and creates a sense of unity as all of Am Yisrael is together in this regard.

Rav Hirsch explains that there are four instances of remembrance in BeReishit. Shabbat is the first of these. The key concept of Shabbat is for a person to understand that he is a product of Hashem. Once that person understands that,, then he can begin to understand the design of the universe and his role in Hashem’s world. After the entire world is flooded and destroyed, God creates a rainbow that should be remembered forever. The rainbow shows us the destructiveness of sin and reminds us that the world was destroyed in the Noach's time because of sin. Brit Milah is also to be remembered. It serves a similar role as Shabbat but exclusively for the Jews. The fourth remembrance, Gid HaNasheh, teaches us that temporary setbacks can't stop the Jewish people from our mission. Yaakov is compared to a creditor, or Nosheh, who lends money. While it may seem as though he lost it, in reality he will get paid back later and will even get a greater reward. Despite his injury, Yaakov was able to stand up to the physically stronger Esav when they met the day after his injury. Esav realizes that Yaakov’s power isn't material; it is the power of something else, standing behind and supporting Yaakov. Esav understood Yaakov would never be defeated as Hashem was with him. This shows the strength of a Jew isn’t physical; rather, it is the connection he builds with Hashem.

Some wonder who the angel was in this story. Chazal say that the angel was Saro Shel Esav, Esav's angel officer. This angel is an evil inclination that tries to convince people to favor materialism. The Avnei Nezer says there are two types of Evil Inclinations. The first is the obvious one that coerces a person something that he or she knows is wrong. This type simply needs to be overcome. The second, trickier one comes stealthily. It does not tell a person to do anything obviously wrong, instead it takes a good thing and adds bad aspects to it. Studying Torah during Tefillah or donating charity in a haughty manner are examples of this evil inclination. This may not be as bad as sin, but can lead down a bad path. For this reason we need to carefully examine our actions to determine if they are truly morally correct.

When Yaakov asks the angel his name, he seems surprised to be asked this question. There are two schools of thought when it comes to understanding the angel's surprise. Some say that he was surprised because knowing an angels name is meaningless. It changes for every mission and therefore has little significance to Yaakov. Others believe that the angel was afraid that Yaakov would pray to him so the angel withheld his name. Rav Shalom Schwadron says in the name of Rav Leib Chasmon that the name of an angel represents its essence. Yaakov was not asking simply for a mere name, but the angel's essence. Rav Leib elaborates that as Esav’s angel, this angel’s essence is to cause people to act without thinking about the consequences of their actions. We need to remember to think before we act or else we will fall into such traps.

At dawn, as the fight is stalemated, the angel requests to leave. Chazal tell us that the angel wishes to leave to sing to Hashem. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik says an angel isn’t allowed to sing until it fulfills its mission. Once it fulfills its mission the angel goes to Hashem and sings that it fulfilled its mission. But why is this the time for the Evil Inclination to be singing? Rav Chaim explains that the mission of the Evil Inclination is to present temptations and desires but to allow us to be strong and overcome it. While it causes us to do evil, it itself is not actually evil. When Yaakov overcame his temptation and beat the angel, the angel's mission was complete.

From this story, we realize there are many difficulties in life that we have to take on. We also have to face them as a united group because that makes them easier. However, unless we are always watching out we may find that the Evil Inclination is hurting us.

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