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Bereshit 32: 4-36: 43

In this week’s parashah Vayishlach, we read about: Jacob’s message to Esau before finding him; about Jacob’s fight with an angel; the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau; Dina’s dishonor being avenged by her brothers; God blessing Jacob at Bethel; Rachel’s death; Isaac’s death and about the sons of Jacob as well as the descendants of Esau.

As Jacob approached the Land of Israel with his wives and children, he prepared to meet his brother Esau. Jacob had sent messengers, a type of angels, to his brother Esau. He wanted to know how to confront his brother whose birthright he had taken, having purchased it from him for a bowl of lentil soup. Jacob shuddered when he learned that Esau was coming to meet him with no less than 400 men. Now that Rivka and Isaac were gone, everything was left to the disposition of these feuding brothers who were preparing for this encounter. We don’t know how it will end. Jacob, our third patriarch was considered an example of mercy and compassion, as evidenced in Bereshit 32: 9 “And he said (Jacob): If Esau comes to one camp and attacks him, the other camp will be able to escape.” He then prayed and prepared gifts for his brother. Finally, the brothers having been separated by their feuds, now hug, kiss, and weep together. All the tension, all the preparation for a looming a battle, dissipated.

How do we react when we are forced into facing a difficult situation? What do we feel in that moment? Jacob was returning to Israel from Haran and now had to face his past. He struggled between trusting God and his own strategies to save the situation.

A very interesting point in this parashah is in Gen 32: 23-32 where we read about the mysterious account of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God. It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the Torah. Here was Jacob, a man tormented by his past, and after crossing the “Maavar Yabbok” (the ford of Jabbok), a Jordanian river that ran near Amman, he was left alone, and visited by an unknown man. The two men began a fight that would last all night, until dawn the next day. This was an experience that would play a key role in changing his life. What was the reason for the fight? Why the duration until dawn? In the end, Jacob asked this person or angel for a blessing. For what? What does that mean?  

Jacob revealed himself to be a privileged witness of one of the most singular combats that humanity can remember, because according to this text, for the first time a human fought a physical fight with an envoy of the Creator. The account does not literally state that the messenger was an angel, but we can deduce from the text that angels are messengers of the Creator.  Now, God used this confrontation with Esau, to encourage Jacob to trust Him. That is what the fight with the “man” next to the ford of Jabbok was about. By this, God was teaching Jacob that there was a fight far more important than any enmity with Esau; it was the struggle with God Himself. 

God will have victory in our lives whenever we leave our “ego” to the direction of God. Until we do, there will be a constant struggle between the Almighty and us. Jacob “wrestled with the angel and overcame him” which we also read in Hosea 12: 4. By humbling himself, repenting and surrendering, this sinful and imperfect mortal prevailed over the Majesty of heaven. He held onto God’s promises and was not rejected. Now his name would no longer reflect deception and error; he would be called “Israel” reflected in the verse, “As a prince you fought with God and men and have prevailed.”

Jacob received the blessing that his heart yearned for. He had been forgiven for his guilt of impersonation and deception. The crisis of his life was now behind him, a life embittered with doubts, perplexity, and remorse, but here everything had changed. Jacob was no longer afraid of meeting his brother. If God had forgiven him, God could also touch Esau’s heart to accept Jacob’s repentance.

This story of Jacob is a guarantee that God does not reject us when we make mistakes if we turn to him with our heart. It was by surrendering and with confident faith that Jacob obtained what he could not achieve by fighting in his own strength. In this way, he was blessed. In the same way, you, and I today, when difficulties surround us and our hearts are desperate, we must depend solely upon the merits of what God does for us. We cannot do anything for ourselves which does not come first from Heaven.

Our sages explain that Jacob’s fight with the mysterious man was the preparation for Jacob’s meeting with Esau and concerned the blessing that Jacob had received from Isaac his father. In this fight, “the angel of Esau” tried to weaken Jacob by showing him that he did not deserve Isaac’s blessing, but in the end when the angel realized that he could not defeat Jacob, he recognized that Jacob did deserve the blessings of his father Isaac and so, he blessed him and gave him the name Israel, which meant that Jacob could overcome spiritual, heavenly, as well as material conflict.

Through this fight and in the way that Jacob defeated the angel, he clarified that our function in this world is to be steadfast, and to have the strength of self-control over any temptation that will be presented to us in this spiritual and material life so that we can grow and progress in all aspects of our life as we hold onto our values and our principles.

One interpretation of the two consequences of the fight, i.e., Jacob’s name being change to Israel and Jacob’s limping due to the injury of his thigh, are the same. Jacob had been branded by his name from the Hebrew Ekev meaning heel or crooked. He accomplished most of his life’s achievements through deception living up to the saying: the means always justified the ends. The fight against this person or angel would be a fight against his own defects, unacceptable for the future patriarch of the Hebrews. The name Israel (from Yashar El meaning God is righteous) is Jacob’s resolution to no longer follow that path. The injury produced by the fight made it impossible for him to walk normally. When we trample upon the rules and justify the means for the ends, the Torah is telling us that we inevitably trample upon our neighbor as well. This mark of Jacob will remain forever as a sign for anyone who wants to carry the name of Israel as a banner. May the Bore Olam open our eyes and show us His light, the dependence we have upon Him and make us aware that this gives us security to follow the path that leads us towards a purpose of righteousness in life.

Shabbat Shalom 

Alejandro Alvarado