Thursday, December 15, 2005

FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: Wrestling with the Angel (Vayishlach)


Kislev 14, 5766 * December 15, 2005


Parshat Vayishlach

Wrestling with the Angel
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A striking passage in the sedra [1] concerns Jacob wrestling with an angel. The event occurs in the context of Jacob preparing to meet his violent and hostile brother Esau, after many years of separation between them. Jacob sent lavish gifts to Esau, who was still at some distance, advancing towards Jacob and his family with a large army. They would meet on the next day.

That night, Jacob did not rest. The Torah tells us that in the middle of the night he got up and took all the members of his family and sent them across the River Yabbok. "Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn" [2].

This 'man' was an angel. The Sages tell us it was the spiritual force of Esau. The Sedra describes how Jacob was more powerful than the angel, although in the struggle he was temporarily harmed: his hip joint was dislocated. Nonetheless he was able to force the angel to give him a blessing.

A question is asked by earlier Sages [3]. While Jacob was wrestling with the angel, what were the members of his family doing? When Jacob took them earlier across the River Yabbok, did he send them away from Esau to safety, or towards Esau? The usual way of understanding the story of Jacob sending his family across the River Yabbok is that he was sending them to safety, away from Esau. But there is also an interpretation that Jacob sent them towards his hostile brother.

We might ask, why should anyone imagine they were being sent towards Esau? Because Esau represents the world around us, and the task of the Jew is to improve and transform the world, to make it into a domain where the Divine Presence can dwell.

Precisely because Jacob was wrestling with the angel, with the spiritual power of Esau, his family did not have to be frightened. They could advance boldly towards Esau, confident that they had the power to change him for the good [4].

This presents an interesting view of the Jewish people in relation to our spiritual leaders. Through the generations our great Sages have at certain times fought mystical battles, struggling with spiritual forces on our behalf. Meanwhile, we the Jewish people as a whole are engaged in the struggle of life, seeking always to bring goodness into a fiercely aggressive world.

Our ability to do this, and to survive spiritually and physically, comes from the fact that our 'Jacob', meaning the great Sages of our time, wrestle with the angel on our behalf. They engage in far-reaching spiritual battles in the realms of profound Torah study and intensive prayer. In addition, the great Jacobs of the Jewish people also lead the way in showing how to encounter Esau himself - as in the Sedra, Jacob did the next day, with great success [5].

As ordinary members of the Jewish people we may not understand Jacob's struggle. After all, what does it mean:- to wrestle with an angel? Yet we can perhaps understand that on account of it, we are helped in our own task in life and service of G-d.

In order to fulfill ourselves as Jews, we do not have to hide away from the world. We can advance towards it and live within it, bringing goodness and holiness, which radiate from our homes. Ultimately we will be able to transform the world in a positive way: Esau and all other hostile forces will make true peace with Jacob, humanity will be united and the world will be filled with joy.


1. Genesis 32:4-36:43.
2. Gen. 32:25.
3. R. Dov Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe, Torat Chaim, pp.56-7.
4. See the Lubavitcher Rebbe's discourse concerning this Sedra in Sefer HaMamamarim, 5743.
5. Gen. 33:1-18.


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