This Week's Torah Portion: Why Did an Angel Wrestle With Jacob All Night? (Part 8)

These essays follow the annual cycle of Torah readings in synagogues the world over, and provide a taste of rabbinical exposition of each such reading in the week it occurs. For a fuller appreciation of the background and underlying premises, please click here.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Va-Yishlach (Genesis XXXII, 4 — XXXVI, 42)

The week’s parasha tells of Ya‘aqov’s (“Jacob’s”) return to the Holy Land after his 20-year sojourn with Lavan in Charan. Understandably apprehensive concerning his reception by his brother, ‘Ésav, Ya‘aqov embarked on a multi-faceted strategy. He sent messengers to ascertain Esav’s attitude and mood (XXXII, 4, Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno ad loc.). When the messengers returned to tell him that ‘Ésav was advancing with an entourage 400-strong, Ya‘aqov did three things:

  1. He divided his camp into two halves in the hope that if ‘Ésav’s intentions were hostile and he attacked, at least half his family might survive (ibid., vv. 8-9).
  1. He prayed that G-d might spare him from his brother (vv. 10-12).
  1. He prepared a very substantial gift for his brother from his flocks and herds (vv. 14-16).

Ya‘aqov was thus prudently prepared for any eventuality. Should G-d answer his prayer, the gift provided a vehicle for his rescue and reconciliation without having to resort to a miracle. Should the Divine decree go against him, perhaps G-d’s mercy would prevent the total extermination of his family. Under cover of nightfall, he moved his family across the Yabboq River into Canaan, to put that much more distance between them and ‘Ésav.

Now follows one of the stranger episodes in the Torah (vv. 25-31). Ya‘aqov was left alone on the far bank of the Yabboq, “and a man struggled with him until the crack of dawn.” The midrash (Bëréshith Rabba LXXVII) tells us that the “man” with whom Ya‘aqov was fighting was indeed an angel, and not just any angel, but saro shel ‘Ésav, his brother’s “guardian” or “guiding” angel.

The angel saw that he could not defeat Ya‘aqov, so:

[H]e touched the inside of [Ya‘aqov’s] thigh, and Ya‘aqov’s thigh was dislocated while he struggled with him. And [the angel] said, Let me go, for dawn has come. And [Ya‘aqov] said, I will not let you go unless you bless me.

Plainly Ya‘aqov was aware that he was not locked in combat with some human bandit; no human being could have injured his thigh with a mere touch, nor does one ordinarily demand a blessing as the price of releasing an assailant with whom one has fought all night:

And [the angel] said to him, What is your name? And he said, “Ya‘aqov.” And he said, Your name will no longer be said, Ya‘aqov, but rather Yisra’él, for you have exalted mastery with G-d and men and you are entirely able.


Ya‘aqov asked and said, Please tell me now your name; and [the angel] said, Why should you ask for my name? And he blessed him there.

The entire sequence begs for explication.

Who has ever heard of human beings in conflict with angels? Why was the angel afraid of the dawn? Why, after fighting with him, did Ya‘aqov seek his blessing? Why, if he could disable Ya‘aqov with a mere touch, was the angel unable to defeat Ya‘aqov? What was the significance of the name change?

In order to understand the episode, it is necessary to stress the midrashic point that the angel was saro shel ‘Ésav and recall the fundamental difference between the two brothers.

In parashath Tolëdoth, two weeks ago, Ya‘aqov was described as an ish tam yoshév ohalim, “an uncomplicated man, swelling in tents” (XXV, 27), which Rashi ad loc. explains as a reference to Ya‘aqov’s intense occupation in studying what Torah had been given to Noach in the academy of Shém and ‘Éver. This occupation made Ya‘aqov a quintessential man of truth, as the prophet Micha later testified:

You give truth to Ya‘aqov (VII, 20).

By contrast, ‘Ésav was an ish yodéa‘ tzayid, “man knowledgeable of trapping” (Genesis, ibid.), which Rashi, on the authority of the Midrash Tanchuma, understands as referring to his practice of trapping and deceiving his father, Yitzchaq (“Isaac”).

‘Ésav, then, is the mirror-image of his brother.

 Yitzchaq himself defined the difference between them as the “voice of Ya‘aqov” and the “hands of ‘Ésav” (XXVII, 22), and the Talmud explains the allusion as the contrast between the voice of Ya‘aqov raised in prayer and study vs. the hand of ‘Esav engaged in warfare (Gittin 14a, 57b).

Bearing all of the above in mind, we turn to one of the primary sources for the most esoteric part of the Jewish tradition, a midrashic compilation called the Zohar.

 The Zohar identifies saro shel ‘Ésav as the mal’ach ha-maveth (“angel of death”), and further as that being who tempted Chavva (“Eve”) in the Garden through the snake’s throat. Indeed, the Zohar depicts the sar as descending to the Earth mounted on a snake, thus emphasizing that here is the source of the yetzer hara‘, the satan (“opponent”), the ba‘al davar (“plaintiff, accuser”).

The epic struggle in which Ya‘aqov was engaged, then, was with the satan, the opponent who resides within each and every one of us.

Perhaps it was in anticipation of this that Ya‘aqov sent his brother the message “with Lavan I lived” (XXXII, 5), which Rashi explains as an allusion to Ya‘aqov’s having survived his time with Lavan uncorrupted, “and I did not learn from his evil deeds.” The terrible trial of 20 years with Lavan had tempered Ya‘aqov spiritually, made him tougher and stronger than ever before. Saro shel ‘Ésav, the ba‘al davar, could not overcome him.

So, the satan tried a different tack; to understand this part fully, it is necessary to know that Talmudic and midrashic sources assert that the Patriarchs observed all of the Torah’s commandments voluntarily, before they were commanded at Sinai (how they were communicated to them is beyond the scope of this essay). This is how the Zohar describes what happened next:

That one riding the snake toward Ya‘aqov knew that it is written “the voice was the voice of Ya‘aqov and the hands were the hands of ‘Ésav,” so that if the voice of Ya‘aqov ceases, all that is left are the hands of ‘Ésav. For this reason he looked to all sides for a way to discomfit Ya‘aqov and discredit him, and saw that Ya‘aqov was stronger than all. What did he do? Immediately, “he touched the inside of his thigh.” He hit on a stratagem against Ya‘aqov, and said, when the upholders of Torah have been broken, the Torah loses strength … and when he saw that he could not defeat the Torah, then he weakened the strength of those who uphold it, then the voice will not be the voice of Ya‘aqov, but the hands will still be ‘Ésav’s hands (I,171a).

Rabbi Moshe Yëchi’él ha-Lévi Epstein, 20th century author of the work Bë’ér Moshe, explains that the existence of Torah implies two levels: that of the talmidei chachamim, the scholars who teach the Torah and spread its knowledge, and that of the rank-and-file who learn from and support them. This was the “weak spot” which the satan sought out, Ya‘aqov’s inner thigh, knocking his spiritual support out from under him symbolically with the physical, and by proximity alluding to his descendants, on the principle that a general can do little by himself without an army. Ya‘aqov, the great scholar, might be invulnerable to his blandishments; not so the “other ranks” of Ha-Shem’s army.

Still, the citadel of Torah was unprofaned. So long as this is so, the ba‘al davar can win battles, but not the war. When Ya‘aqov’s descendants are true to his legacy, when their voice is truly Ya‘aqov’s voice, they are no longer “merely” Ya‘aqov, impediment to ‘Ésav (cf. Genesis XXV,26), but Yisra’él, Israel triumphant: for “you have exalted mastery [saritha] with G-d and men, and you are able.”

An allusion to this may be found in the blessing which Yitzchaq gave to ‘Ésav:

And you will serve your brother, and it will be that when you rebel, you will remove his yoke from your neck.

This can be understood as meaning that ‘Ésav (who, in the modern world, is represented by Western civilization, derived from Græco-Roman culture) must and will be informed by the moral principles embodied in the Torah so long as Israel is true to Ya‘aqov’s legacy of Torah.

Should Israel’s grip on Torah, G-d forbid, be weakened sufficiently, then ‘Ésav can come into his own (cf. Maharam Schiff on Gittin 14a).

There remains the angel’s fear of the dawn. The Talmud (Chullin 91a) tells us that the angel himself told Ya‘aqov, in addition to the dialogue recorded in our parasha:

 I am an angel, and from the day I was created my time to sing to Ha-Shem did not arrive until now.

The Bë’ér Moshe adds that this was no coincidence, but came about as a result of Ya‘aqov’s victory. Why should the angel’s defeat be an occasion for him to sing? The secret lies in an explanation of the Sëfath Emeth, the second (19th century) rabbi of Gur, in Poland.

Commenting on the service for Rosh haShana, he points out that the satan is after all, an angel, a servant of Ha-Shem, Who does not desire that His creatures should transgress His will and sin. The purpose of the yetzer hara‘ is precisely to provide each individual with the opportunity to resist his enticements and so garner more rewards. The ba‘al davar does his job well; the tests are good tests. But, like the proctor of any exam, he rejoices when the “pupils” pass the test. He has no interest in our failure; he wants to fail.

Therefore, when it became clear that Ya‘aqov had successfully resisted him, it was time to make a joyous report to his Master that his mission had been accomplished.

But he left Ya‘aqov with a warning. When Ya‘aqov asked what his name was, he responded with a question: Why are you asking me my name? Quite a few years ago, at a convention of Agudath Israel of America, I was privileged to hear Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, dean of the Telzer yëshiva in Chicago, explain his retort as follows: What good will it do you to know my name? As Rashi says, I change my name all the time. I won’t approach you the same way twice; you and your descendants have to watch out for me. I’m the ba‘al davar.

We have fair warning; the yetzer hara‘ neither slumbers nor sleeps. But we have his measure and we can resist him, for our voice is the voice of Ya‘aqov.