Parshas Vayishlach: A Nameless Foe – An Eternal Battle

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayishlach, we meet our forefather, Yaakov, preparing for his return to Eretz Yisrael.  He has worked for his father-in-law Lavan for twenty years – fourteen for his wives and six for his flocks – and with his family and animals, Yaakov is finally returning home.  Fearing the wrath of his infamous brother, Eisav, who has sworn to kill him over the contested blessings (see Bereishis 27), Yaakov prepares for an epic battle.

He divides his family into two camps – for if Eisav strikes one, surely the other will survive; he sends masses of animals, gifts of appeasement, to Eisav; and he prays to G-d for salvation and deliverance.

The night before the anticipated confrontation, Yaakov finds himself alone… Without warning, a man chances upon him, and wrestles with him till dawn.

Here, our forefather Yaakov – the simple man, dweller in tents – finds himself locked in mortal combat with a fierce opponent, whom the Sages identify as the sar shel Eisav (heavenly power/angel of Eisav).

And yet, with tenacity and courage, determination and prowess, faith and hope – Yaakov does not back down.  He fights…. and fights… and fights… Until the angel sees that somehow, and against all odds (!), he cannot overcome the Jew.

As the confrontation winds to a close, Yaakov requests a blessing, to which the angel inquires of his name, “Yaakov,” and then changes the name to “Yisrael.”

In turn, Yaakov asks: “Now tell me your name,” and he said, Why is it that you ask for my name?”  The episode ends with the angel blessing Yaakov.  Yaakov emerges victorious, but as the morning sun rises, he is injured and limping, a result of the injury he sustained in the all-night battle (See Bereishis 32:25-33).

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Yaakov was attacked for no apparent reason.  When Yaakov asked his attacker for his name, he said, ‘I cannot express my identity.’  The refusal of the anonymous attacker to identify himself represents one of the most horrible characteristics of our destiny – that the Jew never knows who will attack him.

“At the turn of the century, socialist literature claimed that anti-Semitism was a result of capitalism, and if that capitalism were to be abolished, the same would hold true for anti-Semitism. Yet, when the socialists rose to power, they almost immediately became the most virulent anti-Semites in modern times. 

“The anonymity and the unpredictability are the worst aspects of anti-Semitism.

“A second characteristic of this confrontation was that upon defeat, the anonymous antagonist did not promise Yaakov peace.  His silence gave the impression that they would meet again at a future date, and at that time, he would be victorious.  These two characteristics – anonymity and permanence – constitute the fundamental nature of anti-Semitism.  This is why Vayishlach is considered the book of the destiny of the Jew.

“The Sages say that Yaakov asked for his name because he had an uncertain feeling about this mysterious gentleman; he could not determine what sort of fellow he was…  And the answer was, ‘What difference does it make who I am?  Whoever I am, I have one mission, and that is to defy you.  I am opposed to what you strive for: to come back to Eretz Yisrael and build and develop a people in that land” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Bereishis, p.249-251).

And just as Yaakov fought for his life oh so long ago, still today, this fight continues, as we battle for our existence.  And yet, just as Yaakov Avinu did not concede defeat, so too, the nation he bore will never concede.  We may emerge injured and (proverbially) limping, we may at times, be down, but surely, we are never out.   

This past week, 7 Kislev 5778, was the second yarzheit of Ezra Schwartz – 18 years old, an American teen on his gap year in Israel – and Yaakov Don, 49, an Israeli father of four – HY”D (may G-d avenge their blood), who were ruthlessly murdered in a terror attack when an Arab gunman opened fire on a line of traffic near Alon Shvut.

Don’s wife, Sara, eulogized her husband of twenty-two years, as he was laid to his eternal rest.  “Every Thursday, just like yesterday, you went to Ma’aleh Adumim to learn with (our sons).  I suggested that maybe you should not go, because you were so busy. But you said you would not give it up, because it was the highlight of your week.  Yaakov, my beloved, my sweetheart, I still can’t believe that what was, will never be again,” Sara said before her husband’s body, wrapped in a prayer shawl.  “You always wanted me to speak at family events… and now finally, it is happening,” she said. “You always said that you were lucky that I was your wife, but I was the lucky one to have a husband who was loving, attentive, tender and warm.”

Ezra’s sister posted the following on Facebook four months after her brother was killed:

“Dear Ezra, I’m sitting in Ben Gurion airport right now waiting for my flight back home from Israel for the third time since November nineteenth, exactly four months ago. Traveling is stressful. You’re always worried something is going to go wrong or you are most definitely leaving something behind. I know I’m leaving something behind…

“So why can I smile and why can I laugh? Why can I still be me when I’m missing you every moment of every day? I’ve been trying to figure this one out. And I’ll tell you exactly what I think. I believe that you would understand that your (sister) Gréy misses you terribly and while happiness may be unachievable right now, you’d seriously say, “Just try and have some fun”… I just wanted to tell you Ezra, that I had some fun running in the Jerusalem marathon on Friday. I wish more than anything that you had been there with me but as you know, hundreds of runners had you in mind, as I did, during the race.

“As I ran looking out onto the beautiful Jerusalem hills I started to cry and I asked myself the same question I do every day, “Why mine?” There isn’t an answer that works for me, but while I felt like the most unlucky person, I knew I was the luckiest, because you are mine, and I wouldn’t change that in a million years… I hope you know what an impact you’ve made and what an inspiration you are to all… Run4Purple in Memory of Ezra Schwartz – 2016 Jerusalem Marathon runners and more.

“We love you.”

And so, the nation of Yaakov, the simple man, dweller in tents, learns that to survive, we must fight for our existence.  The name of the enemy does not matter, for it changes from time to time, from generation to generation, from land to land.  And when we least expect it, it may just appear.

And yet, as a result of this very battle, Yaakov was renamed Yisraelthe one who has striven mightily, and overcome (Bereishis 32:29). 

May we merit the day when our long night of exile will finally end, when the sun will shine yet again and when the enemy who opposes our return and triumph will be ultimately defeated.

May their memories be for a blessing.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


1 Comment
  • Carol Spodek
    Posted at 09:43h, 30 November

    Thank you for your insightful words on this week’s Parsha. Relating the events in the parsha to current events and unforgettable tragedies, resonate deeply.
    Good Shabbos!