Parsha Vayishlach: Twin struggles

Who was this mysterious assailant who wrestled with Jacob all that long night before his confrontation with brother Esau?

parsha vayishlach 88 (photo credit: )
parsha vayishlach 88
(photo credit: )
PARASHA: Vayishlah "And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of the morning star... And he said, 'Not Jacob shall be your name any more, but rather Israel, because you have fought with God and men, and You have prevailed'" (Genesis 32:25,29). Who was this mysterious assailant who wrestled with Jacob all that long night before his confrontation with brother Esau? Was it an angel, the spiritual power of Esau, as is suggested by the Midrash (based on Daniel 10), or was it God Himself, as the verse immediately following would imply: "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, 'because I have seen God face to face and my soul has been saved'" (Genesis 32:31)? What is the real significance of the magic, mystical wrestling match? If we examine the biblical tale in greater detail, I believe the answer will become self-evident. Our Torah portion opens with Jacob's preparation for his imminent encounter with Esau after more than two decades of estrangement, a guilt-ridden encounter with a twin brother who had threatened to kill him for stealing his blessing. Jacob learns that his brother is marching toward him with more than 400 men, a veritable army! He responds with gifts; Jacob "returns" the blessing to Esau in the form of cattle. But he also prepares for war (if necessary), and prays (Genesis 32:4-24). Chapter 33 details the encounter itself - a remarkably tension-free meeting in which "Esau ran toward [Jacob] and embraced him [Veyehabkehu means 'embraced him,' and Veyeabkehu would mean 'wrestled with him'), fell on his neck and kissed him as they both wept" (Genesis 33:4). Between the anxiety-ridden preparation and the emotion-filled rapprochement are five verses describing the mystical wrestling match with the anonymous assailant (Genesis 32:25-30). So who was the "man"? Clearly, the anonymous "man" who wrestled with Jacob was the divinely given "power of Esau," thereby confirming the prophecy which described the struggle between the twin fetuses in Rebekah's womb as a mirror of the universal and eternal battle between spiritual Judea and militant Rome: "There are two nations in your womb, and two peoples who will separate from your innards; nation will struggle against nation, and the elder will serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). The night wrestling match mirrors the cosmic tension between these forces. Once the spirit of Jacob emerges triumphant - for Israel is promised ultimate victory - the two brothers can play out their temporal roles in relative ease. But there is another and deeper level to the struggle between these forces. Rome poses a physical, external threat to Judea, as evidenced by the destruction of the Second Temple by Vespasian and Titus, and our later dispersion to the four corners of the earth. And Jacob's ability to emerge triumphant is reflected in our present-day return to Zion and in Israel's eventual spiritual domination of Rome, when "all the nations will rush to the Temple Mount, for from Zion shall come forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). But Rome and all it stands for - the militancy of Rome and the Christianity of the Vatican, the Greco-Roman values of beauty and knowledge divorced from Absolute Truth and morality - poses an equally dangerous threat to Judea from within; assimilation into secular materialism and post-modern relativism can separate Judea from its roots far more effectively than any external enemy can ever hope to accomplish. This too was Jacob's fear as he prepared for his encounter with Esau. After all, hadn't he, the wholehearted (tam, meaning both simple and perfect) dweller in tents garbed himself in Esau's hunting attire and utilized the crafty hands of Esau in order to wrest the blessings from their father and outwit his uncle Laban? And did it not happen that the voice of Jacob became totally subdued in Labanland, where the hands of Esau began to emerge as the dominant feature of Jacob's persona? Did it not seem that Jacob won the external battle against Esau in their father's home, only to find himself overtaken by Esau's personality? Indeed, the voice of Jacob was completely silenced, and all that seemed to be left was another incarnation of Esau! The wrestling match that takes place while "Jacob remains alone" is therefore also a struggle within Jacob to regain his own soul, to reclaim his pristine persona. And whenever one struggles to reclaim his true self, he is struggling with (and for) God - that image of the Divine which gives us our truest essence. Jacob had embraced Esau, or Esau-ism, for too long; two individuals locked together may be embracing, they may be wrestling, and they may be struggling to become free of an interlocking relationship which could become a kiss of death. Jacob's success in "returning home" to his original self is also his success in re-discovering his God and the God of his fathers. During that fateful night, Jacob met the power of Esau as well as the face of God - the forces of Rome as well as his own Divine image. And only after defeating both the external and internal Esau could he establish an altar which he called, "God, Lord of Israel" - the God who emerged triumphant. Shabbat shalom. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.