This week, in Parsha Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s continuing journey from his father-in-law’s home in Padan-aram to his own home in Canaan. Knowing that he will encounter Esau as he approaches home, and fearing that Esau still hates him because he “stole” his birthright and blessing, Jacob wants to Be Prepared. Because of his righteousness, Jacob is able to have malachim (angels) help him, and he sends malachim to seek out Esau. The malachim return and tell Jacob that Esau and an army of 400 men are headed his way!
Jacob takes several more precautions. He divides his family, servants, herds and flocks into two camps so that if Esau strikes down one camp, the other will survive. He prays for protection. He tries to appease Esau: The next morning, he sends several waves of very impressive gifts – flocks of goats, ewes and rams, and donkeys, and instructs his servants to tell Esau that these gifts are “Your servant’s, Jacob. It is a tribute sent to my lord, to Esau, and behold he himself is behind us.”
In the middle of the night, Jacob awakens and takes Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, and his 11 sons, and crosses the ford of the River Jabbok. He returns alone to the other side, and there encounters a man – the two wrestle until the break of dawn. The man cannot overcome him, so he hits Jacob in his hip-socket and dislocates it. The man told Jacob to let him go, and Jacob refuses unless the man blesses him. The man then says, “No longer will your name be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with something Divine and with man and have overcome.” (In Hebrew yisra is “to overcome” and El is one of God’s names.)
In the morning Esau and Jacob meet, have a tearful encounter, and reconcile. Jacob continues on his way with his family and household.
The rabbis have different opinions on who Jacob struggles with during the night. Though Jacob’s opponent is described as a man (in Hebrew, ish) we learn at the conclusion of the wrestling match that, in fact, he was Divine, that is, another malach. One of the Sages of the Mishnah, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina, said that this was the guardian angel of Esau. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 77:3. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin points to the fact that in other places, Jacob himself is referred to as ish and based upon that suggests that Jacob is really struggling with himself. Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit, 189.
Rabbi Goldin’s idea is appealing because so often we find the person each of us struggles with most is really ourselves. If we disagree with another person, we can stop listening to them or walk away, but you cannot walk away from yourself. You know you have to study for school tomorrow, but you want to play a video game. You know you should help with a service project, but you want to hang out with your friends.
Like Jacob, if we struggle with our inner angel and succeed in doing the right thing, we will be rewarded.