In the opening Pesukim of Parashat VaYishlach, Eisav gathers four hundred men to destroy Ya’akov and his family. Ya’akov prepares for the battle in three different ways: he divides his people into two camps, he prays to Hashem, and he gives Korbanot. It would be expected that the next event would be a dramatic battle between Ya’akov and Eisav, but instead we find that a man appears out of nowhere and begins to wrestle with Ya’akov, as it says, “VaYivateir Ya’akov Levado VaYei’aveik Ish Imo Ad Alot HaShachar,” “Ya’akov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (BeReishit 32:25). The next Pasuk describes the fight: “VaYar Ki Lo Yachol Lo VaYiga BeChaf Yereicho VaTeika Kaf Yerech Ya’akov BeHei’avko Imo,” “When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him” (32:26).
There are many glaring questions which should strike us upon reading these Pesukim. Firstly, who is this mysterious Ish and why does he want to fight Ya’akov? Secondly, from a grammatical perspective, the narrative includes only pronouns. Furthermore, in context, doesn’t the scene seem out of place? Ya’akov and his family are about to meet their greatest enemy, and the Torah seems to be taking a break in this climactic event by relaying this seemingly insignificant story.
Rav Ari Kahn offers a fantastic insight which clarifies this ambiguous story and its purpose. Ya’akov had everything he could have ever wanted—he had a loving family, beautiful wives, many servants, and an abundance of wealth. While contemplating this, though, he realized that he was becoming increasingly similar to Eisav. He started life by learning Torah the entire day (see Rashi [25:27 s.v. Yosheiv Ohalim]), but then he went to Lavan and worked his fields for twenty years. Ya’akov had become a man of the field just like Eisav. With this increase in material possessions, Ya’kov felt like he was becoming Eisav.
Rav Kahn explains that the fight was Ya’akov’s internal struggle over who he wanted to become. The two men fighting are Ya’akov’s physical self and his spiritual self. The “Ish” is the Ya’akov who is rich and powerful just like Eisav. Ya’akov, however, is the real Ya’akov, the one who wants to study Torah and follow in the ways of Hashem. Throughout the night Ya’akov struggles with what kind of person he wants to be. Finally, at dawn, Ya’akov strikes himself in the thigh in order to separate his physical self from his spiritual self. By doing this, he sets a boundary between the spiritual world and the physical world, and, as a result, we no longer eat the Gid HaNasheh. This also explains why there are only pronouns in the story—Ya’akov is, in reality, fighting himself!
Ya’akov realizes that while he may have looked like Eisav, been a man of the field like Eisav, and possess the wealth Eisav was destined to have, he—at his very core—was not Eisav. It is because of this that Ya’akov changes his name to Yisrael. Ya’akov needs to reestablish himself as being devoted to the service of Hashem and uses Yisrael to represent a man who is wealthy and powerful, but, more importantly, a man who is connected to Hashem. Ya’akov realizes that although he may no longer be like his old self, he is not like Eisav, but he is a new and improved man. Ya’akov recognizes that he is Yisrael and is no longer afraid that he had become Eisav. It is only with this epiphany that Ya’akov feels that he is ready to face Eisav and his army. In light of this, we must all take time to think about who we are and who we want to be. Only when we are satisfied with our own identities can we improve ourselves, face our challenges, and become greater people like Ya’akov Avinu.