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.
Every Mitzvah Counts
by Joseph Jarashow
Parshat Vayishlach begins with Eisav planning to confront his brother Yaakov. Eisav’s pending arrival stirs tremendous fear in Yaakov, which he expresses in 22:8. The Pasuk reads, “Vayira Yaakov Me’od Vayeitzer Lo,” “And Yaakov became very frightened, and it distressed him.” Rashi comments on this Pausk that the double Lashon of Vayira and Vayeitzer indicates two different considerations: Vayira show that Yaakov was concerned for his own life, while Vayeitzer Lo means that he was fearful for the lives of others.
Rav Avraham Twerski explains Yaakov’s great fear in a different fashion. Hashem had promised Yaakov protection at all times. Nevertheless, Yaakov was scared stiff and intimidated before Eisav. Rav Twerski writes that the reason for this great fear was Eisav’s merits. Yaakov feared that Eiasav’s Mitzvot would be forceful enough to nullify Hashem’s covenant with Yaakov. On the surface, this statement is perplexing and seems to be contradictory to previous Parshiyot. Eisav was a Rasha of the first degree, while Yaakov was a Tzadik Gamur. In fact, according to the Midrash, Eisav committed acts which were more appalling and flagrant then all other Aveirot. Thus, it seems nonsensical that Yaakov would be worried about Eisav’s Mitzvot negating a covenant between him and Hashem.
Of course, Rav Twerski, well aware of this issue, further clarifies his explanation. Yaakov was primarily fearful of two of Eisav’s Mitzvot: living in Eretz Yisrael and fulfilling the Mitzvah of Kibud Av to Yitzchak, both of which Yaakov had not done in over twenty years. He had not fulfilled these Mitzvot to the degree Eisav had. Therefore, although Eisav was a Rasha Gamur in comparison to Yaakov, the mere fact that he fulfilled these two Mitzvot was reason enough for Yaakov’s tremendous fear.
We see a similar type of fear expressed by Moshe Rabeinu. When Moshe went to war with Og Melech HaBashan, he was absolutely petrified. Although Moshe had a level of prophecy superior to that of any man, he was afraid of a non-Jewish king. The Midrash writes that Og was the messenger who informed Avraham of the passing of his brother-in law, Lot. Moshe was fearful that the merit of this one act would be enough for Og to succeed in battle against Moshe.
We can learn a most applicable and important lesson from these two instances. Tanach figures such as Moshe and Yaakov were distraught about an encounter with a Rasha who performed one or two righteous acts. We must acknowledge the potential ramifications of performing or not performing a single Mitzvah, and recognize that any Mitzvah can tip the scales in our favor.
The Positive Spin
by Gavriel Metzger
As Yaakov Avinu is awaiting the arrival of his brother Eisav in Parshat Vayishlach, he unleashes a preemptive strike of sorts, sending out a myriad of gifts in the hope that they will calm his brother’s seething anger towards him. Yaakov sends out his servants out with hundreds of goats, sheep, and camels to bring to Eisav, commanding each group of messengers as follows: “Ki Yifgashcha Eisav Achi USh’eilcha Leimor, ‘LeMi Atah, VeAnah Telech, ULmi Eileh Lefanecha’…VeAmarta, ‘LeAvdecha LeYaakov; Minchah Hi Sheluchah LAdoni LeEisav,’” “When you meet my brother Eisav and he asks you, ‘Whose are you? Where are you going? And for whom are these gifts?’…you should answer, ‘They are your servant Yaakov’s; it is a present sent to my master Eisav’” (32:18-19). What are the meaning and purpose of these strange words that Yaakov uses in his parting instructions to his servants?
The Rim ZT”L prefaces his answer to the question with a quote from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:1). The Mishnah teaches that if one understands three ideas, he will not come to sin: where he is coming from, where he is going, and before whom he will stand on the day of judgment. This statement seems puzzling, but in fact it provides tremendous insight into Yaakov’s genius and foresight.
Yaakov realizes that Eisav will quiz the servants in an effort to have them do a double-take; perhaps they will realize that, as the Mishnah says, they come from dust, are headed to a wooden box in the ground, and are destined to be judged in front of the King of Kings, which will distract them from their true goal of peace. Therefore, Yaakov sends his messengers with the predetermined answer of “they are your servant Yaakov’s; it is a present sent to my master Eisav.” Yaakov intends this rejoinder to remove the qualms of his servants, placing a separate message of Chizuk in each part of the message to help the servants refocus on their objective.
By opening with LeAvdecha LeYaakov, Yaakov implies that the servants should realize that they alone are indeed not important, but they belong to a larger and more significant cause and should not lose sight of that. The second statement, Minchah Hi Sheluchah, points out that even this seemingly trivial act of delivering gifts has an extremely profound resonance in the heavens. This is much like the effect of a poor-man’s Minchah (flour) offering, which, though relatively small in size, is highly valued in Shamayim, since the individual is sacrificing a great deal of his income to serve Hashem. As the Chachamim teach, “A poor man who continually offers Minchah sacrifices is considered as though he has sacrificed his soul to Hashem” (Menachot 104b). Even the smallest act such as this delivery of livestock is valued greatly in the eyes of Hashem. LAdoni LeEisav, meanwhile, reminds the messengers that by transporting these gifts, they are effectively attempting to combat Eisav, who symbolizes the brute strength of the Yetzer HaRa, the evil inclination.
Although the task seemed daunting at the onset, the preparation from Yaakov assured that the servants would not falter or lose focus before Eisav.
At times, life seems to take cruel turns and spins, whether it be losing a championship game, not getting the raise you hoped for, or just not living up to expectations you set for yourself. Perhaps with a little Chizuk from Rabbeim, friends and family, we will hopefully always be able to put a positive spin on things like Yaakov Avinu, and realize that in retrospect, everything worked out well as Hashem planned.
What’s in a Name?
by Chaim Strassman
In Parshat Vayishlach we see our forefather Yaakov preparing for battle with his brother Eisav. However, during the night, Yaakov is attacked by a strange man. When the sun is about to come up and the fight is drawing to a close, Yaakov does something very peculiar: he requests a Berachah from the man he has been fighting all night. Why does Yaakov ask the man who attacked him in the middle of preparations for battle for a blessing? The fight is over, so why would he not simply let the man leave?
Chazal answer that Yaakov’s adversary is no ordinary man. Yaakov has really been fighting Eisav’s angel the entire night. When Yaakov asks for a blessing, he is actually asking Eisav’s angel to admit that the blessings Yitzchak gave Yaakov are truly Yaakov’s. How does the angel respond? He proceeds to change Yaakov’s name to Yisrael. How does this simple name change reflect the angel’s new attitude toward the validity of Yaakov’s Berachot from Yitzchak?
For an answer, we may look at the word Yisrael. The first letter, “Yud,” stands for both Yaakov and Yitzchak. The second letter, “Sin,” stands for Sarah. The third letter, “Reish,” stands for both Rachel and Rivkah. The fourth letter, “Alef,” stands for Avraham. The last letter, “Lamed,” stands for Leah. With each letter representing a Patriarch or a Matriarch, the new name shows that the blessing Yitzchak gave Yaakov, which was that the Jews would emerge from him, belongs only to Yaakov and not Eisav.
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