Yaakov’s encounter with an “Ish” (literally a man) near the Yabok River is a most peculiar one, requiring much interpretation. I wish to focus on what occurs toward the end of the wrestling match between Yaakov and this “Ish,” and to understand the Pesukim through the eyes of Abarbanel.
Chazal tell us that the “man” Yaakov struggles with is really an angel, specifically “Saro Shel Eisav,” the guardian of Eisav. Yaakov, however, is ostensibly unaware of the identity of this man. When the angel realizes that he is unable to overcome Yaakov, he remarks, “Let me go, because dawn has arrived.” Yaakov responds, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” After the angel “blesses” him, Yaakov asks the angel, “What is your name?” whereupon the angel responds, “Why do you ask for my name?” (32:27-30).
A number of difficulties arise from this passage. First, why does the angel feel compelled to leave at dawn? It is as if he is afraid that he will be noticed when daybreak arrives. Second, what is the nature of this Berachah that Yaakov requested? Does a victim typically ask his aggressor for a blessing? Third, what is so important about the “man’s” name that Yaakov demands to know it? Moreover, why does the angel respond so evasively, and refuse to give his name? And why can Yaakov not simply answer, “When you asked for my name, I told it to you; why can you not tell me your name?”
Abarbanel explains that the angel tells Yaakov to let him go not for his own sake, but for Yaakov’s sake. Eisav is approaching, and Yaakov needs to prepare for Eisav’s arrival. The angel believes that this will discourage Yaakov from continuing to wrestle. Yaakov then asks for a blessing because it was the custom when two individuals wrestled for the loser to declare his opponent victorious and acknowledge the victor’s superior strength. This is the nature of the blessing that Yaakov requests. In fact, that is exactly what the angel means when he changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael. Another prevalent custom following a wrestling match was for the loser to become subservient to the winner. He became his slave and was to be and the beck and call of the victor for the rest of his life (or until he, the loser, won at a later date). Yaakov therefore asks for the angel’s name so that he can call for his opponent’s service at will. The angel responds, “Why do you ask for my name?” He is essentially communicating to Yaakov that he, the angel, is not a human and cannot serve Yaakov despite Yaakov’s victory.
Thus, Abarbanel understands that Yaakov’s encounter with the angel is basically a wrestling match which includes that time’s prevalent customs and etiquette of fighting with honor. In this passage, as in so many others, an understanding of the realities of the period in question sheds much light on an otherwise very puzzling story.