Parashat Vayishlach : The light at the end of the night

Faith in God allows us to see beyond the horizon; to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when that light is still hidden.

FAITH IN God allows us to see beyond the horizon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
FAITH IN God allows us to see beyond the horizon
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last week we read about Jacob, who was residing in Haran where he married Leah and Rachel and had 11 sons and one daughter. We followed his escape as Laban chased after him. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob continuing on his way to Canaan, meeting his brother Esau and making peace with him, and then facing the Canaanites in the land, and parting from his beloved wife Rachel who died during the birth of his 12th son, Benjamin.
Only several hours before Jacob met Esau, in the dead of night, Jacob hurriedly took his family over the Zarqa River, which flows from the eastern side of the Jordan. When he was left alone on the northern bank of the river, he experienced a different encounter, one that was mysterious and violent, with someone who was unwilling to identify himself.
“And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25).
When the altercation ended, Jacob asked to know the name of the mysterious man. The man’s answer was, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” This answer teaches us, based on parallels in the Torah, that this was not an ordinary person, but something from another world – an angel. The sages of the Midrash explained that it was a spiritual representation of Esau – his “minister,” or angel.
Why did Jacob find himself in this struggle? What did this encounter with the angel come to teach Jacob only hours before his meeting with his older brother, Esau?
We find identical answers to these questions in the words of two commentators from the Middle Ages. One was a poet, astronomer, and philosopher by the name of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (born Tudela, Spain, 1089-died London 1164); the other a renowned grammarian and philosopher, Rabbi David Kimhi (known as the Radak; Provence, France, 1160-1235). They both wrote commentaries on the Bible and their interesting answer is one we can learn a lot from.
But to understand their answer we have to note Jacob’s emotional state on that stormy night. He was desperately frightened. He knew his brother Esau hated him and wanted to kill him. Jacob was so scared that he took desperate measures to divide his camp into two so that at least half the family would be saved. Jacob knew there was a good chance that on the following day his brother would slaughter him and his family. He feared he was heading toward a likely tragedy.
The purpose of the violent encounter between Jacob and the angel was, according to Ibn Ezra and the Radak, to strengthen his spirit. After wrestling with the angel and surviving, Jacob saw the situation wasn’t that horrible. He had the strength to wrestle – even with an angel – and maybe even emerge victorious. Though he walked away from that altercation limping on his leg, he walked away alive!
Jacob understood this the morning after the altercation. But what did he feel at night when that mysterious person fought him? Jacob fought this “man” the entire night. It was an unbearable night. But when the light of dawn appeared, Jacob understood this was all for his benefit, to instill courage and confidence ahead of his meeting with Esau.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a difficult situation. It could be financial, health-related, or social. We feel like reality is closing in on us and we have no escape route. Jacob’s story teaches us that even desperate situations can turn out to be ones whose purpose was to strengthen and empower us.
Faith in God allows us to see beyond the horizon; to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when that light is still hidden. Even in the darkest of times, we are meant to try and see the good. Jacob’s night was long and difficult, but ultimately, we believe, the dawn will appear and shed light on reality.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.