Striving With the Divine and With Man by Rabbi Joel Grossman


In Parashat VaYishlach, immediately after its description of Yaakov’s preparations for a battle with Esav, the Torah describes Yaakov’s brawl with a nameless man. In his commentary, Rashi cites the Midrash Rabbah and identifies the man as the “Saro Shel Eisav,” the guardian angel of Esav (BeReishit 32:25 s.v. VaYei’aveik Ish Imo). Immediately following their fight, Yaakov demands a blessing from the angel, and in response, the angel states, “Lo Yaakov Yei’ameir Od Shimcha Ki Im Yisrael, Ki Sarita Im Elokim VeIm Anashim VaTuchal,” “Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome” (BeReishit 32:29).

Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his work Darash Moshe, points out that Yaakov Avinu is notified of his name change on two different occasions by two separate sources. His first notification comes from the angel, as described in the aforementioned Pasuk. Additionally, Yaakov is notified by Hashem Himself three Perakim later. There, Hashem states, “Lo Yikarei Shimcha Od Yaakov, Ki Im Yisrael Yihyeh Shemecha,” “Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name” (35:10).

There is an interesting difference between the two occasions of Yaakov’s name change. When the angel informs Yaakov of his new name, it also gives him a reason: “Ki Sarita Im Elokim VeIm Anashim VaTuchal,” “For you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.” On the other hand, no reason is given by Hashem during Yaakov’s second renaming. What is the significance of this difference between the two Pesukim? What did the angel mean by “striven”? What exactly did Yaakov do to deserve his new name?

A person is faced with many challenges in life. It is his duty to meet those trials and maintain his faith and fear of Hashem. These challenges fall into two categories. First, there are the personal struggles, which we all have within ourselves. However, there is another type of challenge which is sometimes even more difficult to face—the generational challenge not to be swayed by those who try to dissuade others from following the Mitzvot of the Torah. This second challenge is something we constantly face, and with great effort, BeEzrat Hashem, defeat.

When the angel tells Yaakov the reason for his renaming, it essentially states that in the past, Yaakov was successful in his triumph over both of these challenges. The “divine” in the Pasuk refers to the Yeitzer HaRa, evil inclination, while “man” refers to the various people who tried to stop Yaakov from performing Mitzvot. That is the reason why the angel tells Yaakov he is worthy to have his name changed to Yisrael.

Hashem, on the other hand, is not speaking about the past. He is assuring Yaakov that future generations will also be worthy of the name “Yisrael,” that they will be people who will not give in to the Yeitzer HaRa and the outward pressures of society. The name “Yisrael” to Yaakov is a way of saying that for all time, anyone who “strives” will be guaranteed to “overcome.”

How do we defeat the Yeitzer HaRa? The Gemara in Kiddushin 30b states that whenever the Yeitzer HaRa strikes, a person should go to the Beit Midrash, where he will have the ability to defeat it. Talmud Torah enables a person to overcome the Yetzer HaRa. I personally witnessed Rav Moshe Feinstein learn Mishnayot while wrapping up his Tefillin after davening. When I asked him why he was learning at that moment, he responded that “if Yochanan HaKohen could go into the Holy of Holies for eighty years and at the end of his life become a non-believer, then it could happen to me as well.” In order to be deserving of the name “Yisrael,” we need to maintain our connection with Hashem, and we need to internalize the centrality of Talmud Torah.

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