Vayishlach: Wrestling With G-d and With Man

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayishlach, we learn of the historic confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav, after they have been apart for twenty years.  Yaakov, having fled his home to save his life from before his brother who vowed to kill him, is now en route back to Canaan, after twenty years of working for Lavan.  He is returning along with his four wives, twelve children, many flocks and servants.  Fearing the wrath of his brother Eisav, Yaakov prepares for war.  He divides his family into two camps, to ensure that one will survive if the other is attacked, he sends gifts to Eisav and he prays to Hashem to save him.  

The night before he is to meet Eisav, Yaakov finds himself alone by the Yabok River, where a mysterious Ish – identified by the Sages as the Sar shel Eisav – confronts him and wrestles with him all night long.  As the morning dawns, the angel’s time has come to sing shira (songs of praise to G-d in Heaven) and he asks Yaakov to release him from the epic battle in which they are engaged.  Yaakov replies: לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי, I will not send you away until you have blessed me.  The angel asks for his name, and he replies: Yaakov.  And the angel says: וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל, No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, rather, Yisrael.  For you have striven with G-d and with men and have overcome (Bereishis 32:25-29).  

Interestingly, a few perakim later, we find that once again Yaakov is informed of his name change, this time by G-d Himself. וַיֹּאמֶרלוֹ אֱלֹקֹים, שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב: לֹאיִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב, כִּי אִםיִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶתשְׁמוֹ, יִשְׂרָאֵלand Hashem said to him: Your name is Yaakov.  No longer will your name be called Yaakov, rather, Yisrael will be your name.  And He called his name Yisrael (35:10).  

Ha’Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l teaches: “We find two places where Yaakov learned of the changing of his name: once from the angel who fought with him prior to his confrontation with his brother Eisav, and once from Hashem Himself.  There is an interesting, and noteworthy, difference between the two.  When the angel informed Yaakov about the name change, he gave a reason for it, stating: כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל – ‘For you have striven with G-d and men, and you have overcome.’  However, when Hashem informed Yaakov of the name change, no reason is given.

“In order to understand the reason for this differentiation, we must first explain the meaning of the reason given to Yaakov by the angel.  The angel told Yaakov he was worthy of the name Yisrael because ‘he strove with the Divine and with man and overcame.’  What was the nature of this striving to which the angel referred?”

Rav Moshe explains that, “A person is faced with many challenges in this world.  It is his role to meet those challenges and remain steadfast in his faith and fear of Hashem.  Life’s challenges mainly fall into two categories.  First, there are the personal struggles that every person has within himself.  Our yetzer harah, evil inclination, is always trying to tempt us to transgress the laws of Torah in search of imagined material gain.  Hashem granted us the yetzer harah for our benefit, to ensure that we would always have free choice – and thus, be deserving of reward in the World to Come.  

“… There is, however, a second type of challenge that is sometimes even more difficult than the first.  This is the challenge of people.  In every generation, there are those people who try to persuade and prevent us from adhering to the tenets of our Torah.  This is an adversary we constantly face, and with much effort, we must fight against.

“The angel told Yaakov that in the past he had been successful on both of these fronts.  For you have striven with the Divine’ refers to one’s ongoing battle with one’s Divinely given yetzer harah.  And with man,’ refers to the various people who tried to stop Yaakov from pursuing his spiritual goals (See Rashi to Bereishis 32:29 – ‘For you have striven with men: This refers to Eisav and Lavan.’).  For this reason, the angel told Yaakov he was worthy of having his name changed to Yisrael.”  

Hence, the declaration of the angel that Yaakov’s name would be changed to Yisrael commemorates Yaakov’s past internal and external battles, and his new name would be a testament to his victories and triumphs over all the forces that sought to dissuade him from his mission of avodas Hashem.

“Hashem, on the other hand, was not referring to Yaakov’s past.  In changing Yaakov’s name to Yisrael, Hashem was assuring Yaakov that all the future generations of Klal Yisrael would be worthy of the name Yisrael; that they all would contain learned, G-d fearing individuals who would neither give in to the persuasions of the yetzer harah – our internal battle, nor bend to the will of corrupt and wicked people – our external battle” (Darash Moshe, v.II, Artscroll, p.69-70). 

In living up to our title of the Bnei Yisrael, we are charged – and blessed – with a unique mission.  Each one of us must contend with our internal forces that seek to distract us from our life mission of living lives of Bnei Torah.  And each of us must fight mightily against the society in which we live; a society whose very fabric and essence is the antithesis of Torah ideals.

A bachur once asked Ha’Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’l (whose 4th yarzheit is on 24 Kislev, zy’a) to recommend a mussar sefer that would help him improve his middos.  R’ Aharon Leib replied, “Do you think I have a classified sefer the yetzer harah doesn’t know about? It doesn’t matter which mussar sefer you learn from.  The main thing is that you have to have a serious desire to improve your middos.  If you try and improve, you will be able to outflank the yetzer harah” (Reb Aharon Leib, Artscroll, p.142).  

Yaakov Avinu himself was successful in overcoming his struggles in both realms, and hence, he merited the name Yisrael.  Hashem then promised him that in the future, his children, the Bnei Yisrael, would be successful as well, continuing on the path of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov/Yisrael, meriting – and living up to – the essence of our name.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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