Parshat Vayishlach relates the story of Yaakov’s struggle with the guardian angel of Esav. This story can be understood on many levels. The Chachamim teach us that every nation has its own angel that acts as an intermediary between it and Hashem. There are, however, two nations that are unique and different. One is Bnei Esav, the epitome of evil, whose angel is the representation of spiritual evil- the Satan himself. The other is Bnei Yisrael, Hashem’s chosen people, who have no need for an intermediary. Their task is to perfect themselves spiritually and connect to Hashem. Consequently, this interchange between Yaakov and the angel is the primal struggle being waged between good and evil, between man’s quest for spiritual growth and the determined efforts of Satan to undermine him.
But there is more to this interchange than man’s struggle with the forces of evil. Why does Yaakov say to the angel (Bereshit 32:27): “I will not let you go unless you bless me”? And why does the angel answer Yaakov with the question, “What is your name?” Is it possible that the angel does not know Yaakov’s name?
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira (the Piaseczner Rebbe), who perished as Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, uses this story to communicate a valuable lesson. We know that the lives of our forefathers are living lessons for us. Yaakov had just battled the angel and damaged his sciatic nerve. The angel prepares to leave, and Yaakov stops him and asks, “Is that it? Is this the fate of Bnei Yaakov that they are to suffer, to endure damage and pain, with their reward simply being their own survival? Is their post-suffering time to be identical to the period before? I will not let this happen!” Yaakov demands a Beracha of this angel who has wounded him. Yaakov was not only seeking the survival of his people and a respite from their enemies; he was also demanding that Hashem grant them salvation. It is not enough to endure and emerge from suffering; we are to gain spiritually and connect on an even deeper and more profound level to Hashem.
Why did the angel ask Yaakov for his name following Yaakov’s demand for a Beracha? The name “Yaakov” means “he that holds onto the heel of.” Yaakov was given this name because he entered the world holding on to the heel of his twin brother, Esav. This position had been characteristic of Yaakov throughout his life. Yaakov’s victories came on the heels of having been trodden on by Esav. Now, however, the angel of Esav says to Yaakov that this will no longer be true. This communication takes the form of a simple question: “What is your name?” Embedded in this question is the notion that one’s identity is defined by one’s name. We say of an individual, “Kishmo, Ken Hu,” which means, “He is as his name”. An individual’s name encapsulates his qualities. The angel says to Yaakov, “There is no need for me to bless you, for your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael.” Bereshit 32:29 states: “No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.” This name change denotes a sea change in Yaakov’s relationship with his brother Esav and the world. He is no longer the hanger-on, the downtrodden one. Instead, the angel communicates to Yaakov that his victory is assured and that he will persevere against his enemies, emerging not only alive but stronger and closer to Hashem. He will be a “Sar”, which means both “struggle” and “lord.” Even before Yaakov’s struggle with Esav’s angel, he was a lord over himself, having struggled with his own impulses and desires. Now, having waged and won the physical battle with evil, he becomes Yisrael, the man who bravely faces both men and angels and governs his own spirit.