21 Nov 2018 Parshas Vayishlach: Yisrael, The One Who Strives
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayishlach, Yaakov and his family are on the move, as they return to Eretz Canaan, having left the confines of the house of Lavan.
As the parsha opens, Yaakov is afraid and distressed, as he prepares for war and confrontation with his brother, Eisav. After twenty years with Lavan, Yaakov is finally returning home with four wives, eleven sons, one daughter, many servants and large and varied flocks.
As Yaakov prepares for the worst-case scenario, assuming his brother still wants to kill him, he prays to Hashem for protection, divides his family into two camps – for if one is hit, the other will be saved – and sends gifts of appeasement to Eisav, hoping to calm his decades-old wrath.
The night before the epic meeting, Yaakov finds himself alone on the banks of the Yabok River. Unprotected and unprepared, a man wrestles with him until the morning dawn. The Sages teach that his opponent was none other than sar shel Eisav, the spiritual power of Edom/Eisav. וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר – And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the morning dawn (Bereishis 32:25).
The angel’s name was סמאל (Sam’el), and he was the most potent force of evil possible: כי הוא שטן, הוא מלאך המות, הוא יצה״ר – he was the satan, he was the angel of death, he was the yetzer hara (evil inclination) (see Kli Yakar to 32:25). And despite such overwhelming evil, Yaakov perseveres.
Though he emerges limping and injured as the morning dawns, he remains standing on his own two feet, having fought through the long, dark night. It is during this battle that the sar shel Eisav informs Yaakov of a name change: וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל – And he said, no longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־ אלקים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל, for you have striven with the Divine and with men, and you have overcome (ibid, v.29).
No matter how rough the fight, no matter how dark the night, no matter how alone Yaakov may have felt, no matter how hopeless the situation may have seemed!, Yaakov never gave up. He kept going, fighting, struggling, striving. He may have been injured and limping, but he was certainly not down! For you have striven much in life, and you have overcome!
Given that Yaakov overcame the battle, should he not have been renamed after the victory, תּוּכָֽל, and you have overcome? Why was he named יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל, striven, after the battle itself? While the combatant is honored, isn’t he who triumphs the greatest warrior?
To a struggling talmid (student), R’ Yitzchak Hutner zt’l (1906-1980) wrote:
“…A failing many of us experience is that when we focus on the lofty level of accomplishments of great people, we only focus on how they are complete in this or in that area. At the same time, we omit mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in ideal form.
“Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles, and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara (evil inclination)?
“…Know, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the yetzer tov, but rather in the battle of the yetzer hara… My cherished one, I clasp you to my heart and whisper in your ear…Your spirit is storming as it aspires to greatness. I beg of you, do not portray for yourself great men as being one with their yetzer tov. Picture their greatness, rather, in terms of an awesome war with their yetzer hara.
“When you feel the turmoil of the yetzer hara within yourself, know that by experiencing that feeling you resemble great men far more than if you were to experience the feeling of deep peace, which you desire. In those very areas where you feel yourself failing most frequently – particularly in those areas – do you have the greatest potential for serving as an instrument of distinction for the honor of Hashem…
“You are planted in the house of Hashem! Sharing in your suffering, with confidence in your victory, with prayers for your success, R’ Yitzchak Hutner” (Quoted in Great Jewish Letters, Artscroll, p.238-241).
While it is great to win the war, וַתּוּכָֽל, it is even greater to fight the fight, כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ. Hence, Yaakov is not named after the victory, but after the struggle itself. לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל.
It is no accident then, and no wonder, that we, the Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, are known forever as the Bnei Yisrael – the children of the one who strove. For all the battles of our lives, the nisyonos (trials and tribulations) that we face, the wrestles with the yetzer hara, the times we feel like giving up – but don’t! – the days when we doubt our own strength, and emerge from battle limping, but not down, we are truly the embodiment of Yisrael.
Bnei Yisrael – a nation that will continue to wrestle till the morning light of Moshiach dawns, and never give up – may it be immediate and in our days;
Eretz Yisrael – a land that may be limping at times, that cries with the losses of her precious children R”L, but that will continue to wrestle with the enemy, till she will ultimately triumph eternally, despite it all;
Toras Yisrael – for it is our life and the length of our days.
בברכת שבת שלום, ובשורות טובות,