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Vayishlach | From Jacob to Israel


           Parashat Vayishlach includes one of the most cryptic and mysterious narratives in the Torah.  After twenty years in the house of Laban, Jacob returns with his household to the land of Israel.  His worst nightmare materializes as he is informed that his brother Esau is speedily marching towards him with four hundred men.  Esau's rage over Jacob's stealing his blessing has not subsided.  Jacob decides to cross the Jabbok River at night. After taking his household across the river Jacob remains alone at which point a mysterious stranger appears. 

32:23-32:  "That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.  Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.  When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, 'Let me go, for dawn is breaking.'  But he answered, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.'  Said the other, 'What is your name?'  He replied, 'Jacob.'  Said he, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.'  Jacob asked, 'Pray tell me your name.'  But he said, 'You must not ask my name!'  And he took leave of him there.  So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, 'I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.'  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.  That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob's hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle." 

          This narrative is replete with issues that require elucidation. Why is Jacob crossing a river in the middle of the night? Who is this mysterious man who appears from nowhere? Why does he wrestle with Jacob? What is the significance of the new name, Israel, that Jacob is assigned? 

          The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) offers an ingenious explanation of the narrative.  Jacob is attempting to flee from Esau.  He furtively crosses the river under the veil of night so as to evade combat with him.  God, however, wishes the encounter between the brothers to take place, in order that Jacob see the fulfillment of God's promise that Esau will do him no harm.  He therefore sends an angel to prevent Jacob's escape.  The angel, hard pressed to contain Jacob, dislocates his hip joint, laming him and preventing any possibility of escape.  This incident parallels other instances in the Bible, for example, Jonah's being swallowed by a whale, in which harm befalls the protagonist who goes counter to God's wish.  According to the Rashbam, Jacob's trepidation overrides his faith and he must be compelled by an angel to face his brother.  This explanation neatly explains several peculiar features in the narrative.  Jacob chooses to cross the river specifically at night, so as to evade detection by his brother.  The struggle between the angel and Jacob continues through the night till dawn, and thus precludes any possibility of escape.  The injury inflicted on Jacob is also specifically intended to slow Jacob down and prevent his flight.  One major difficulty with this interpretation exists, however.  Can you identify it? 

      The explanation does not seem to suit the conclusion of the narrative.  Jacob is crowned with the name Israel as a badge of courage and power: "for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed."  It would seem highly unlikely that this new name should come about as a result of a fearful attempt at escaping from conflict.  According to the Rashbam's interpretation, Jacob appears to be more of a coward than a courageous fighter! 

          The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235) adopts a slightly different approach.  Jacob is not attempting to escape, but rather he is overcome with fear.  God sends an angel to embolden Jacob and build his confidence before his confrontation with Esau.  God signals to Jacob that just as the angel cannot triumph over him, so to Esau will be unable to prevail and defeat him.  The struggle's conclusion at dawn symbolizes the light and salvation which await Jacob after the long night, the extended darkness and hardship suffered while in exile.  Jacob's new name, Israel, is indicative of his power and his capacity to triumph over his adversaries, both human and Divine.  Although God had already promised Jacob that he would watch over him and return him safely to the land of Israel, Jacob doubts that he merits the fulfillment of this promise.  He worries that his sins might make him unworthy of Divine protection.  The purpose of the angel, according to the Radak, is to invest Jacob with renewed confidence.  Jacob is nevertheless injured by the angel due to his lack of faith in God and his complete capitulation before Esau in their encounter (see 33:3).  Do you find the Radak's interpretation to be convincing? 

          This interpretation undoubtedly rests better with the end of the narrative, Jacob's being notified of his new name, Israel.  However, it raises some new difficulties.  Verse 26, "When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket...", implies a desire on the part of the angel to triumph over Jacob.  This would seem to contradict the Radak's claim that the angel's task was to bolster Jacob's confidence.  Were this the case he would certainly not wish to prevail over Jacob.  In addition, the Radak's explanation of the injury inflicted upon Jacob seems to contradict the entire basis of his interpretation.  An injury is surely no boost to the morale of a man on his way to battle. 

          As opposed to the aforementioned interpretations which identify the man as an anonymous angel, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), citing our sages, identifies him as the angel of Esau.  It is not to be inferred from this interpretation that every individual has a personal angel watching over him.  Rather, just as all nations have a representative angel so to does Esau, as the father of Edom, have an angel.  This angel represents the spiritual essence of the nation.  Rashi extends this line of interpretation in the continuation of the narrative.  Why is Jacob unwilling to release the angel without being blessed by him?  What is this blessing which Jacob so urgently wishes to receive from the angel?  According to Rashi, Jacob demands from Esau's angel: "confirm for me the blessing which my father [Isaac] blessed me, for Esau is contesting them."  The angel in turn responds "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed." 

          What is the significance of the change of name from Jacob to Israel?  Rashi comments: "It will no longer be said that the blessing came to you through deceit but rather through prevailing..."  The name Jacob which stems from the Hebrew word 'akev' (heel) has a negative connotation.  Jacob was called so because he was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother, Esau (25:26).  Even at birth Jacob was trying to hold back his brother and prevent him from being the first born. Likewise, after Jacob guilefully receives the blessing intended for Esau, Esau reacts by saying: "Was he then named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times"(27:36)  The name Jacob is thus associated with deception and backhandedness.  This stigma seems to accompany Jacob throughout his life.  Jacob wishes to prove that the blessing which he received by trickery is actually deserved.  He thus compels Esau's angel to concede Jacob right to the blessing.  Jacob's new name confirms his claim.  He is no longer referred to as Jacob, the one who clings to his brother's heel, but rather Israel who has prevailed over Esau's angel. 

          This triumph, however, is not without a price.  Jacob leaves the struggle limping with a dislocated hip.  The commentators explain that the duel was a wrestling match geared to toppling the opponent to the ground.  The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) suggests that the angel was attempting to trip Jacob and make him loose his footing.  The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274), however, attaches symbolic significance to Jacob's injury.  He regards the whole incident as illustrative of the principle that the "deeds of the patriarchs are a sign to their descendants."  The episodes in the lives of the patriarchs foreshadow important events in the history of the Jewish people.  "The entire event constitutes an allusion to our future history, indicating that there will come a generation when the descendants of Esau will overcome the seed of Jacob almost to the point of total destruction... but we have endured and it has passed over us as is intimated by the verse 'And Jacob came in peace'"(33:18).  The people of Israel are destined to wage an ongoing struggle against evil.  This struggle will incur, at times, a painful and heavy price but it will assuredly end in triumph. 


          The struggle against the angel and consequently the new name assigned to Jacob, Israel, are indicative of a change in Jacob's character.  It would seem highly unlikely, though, that this change is a product of one wrestling match; it is more plausibly the result of an extended process of transformation begun at Jacob's departure from home twenty years earlier. 

          This transformation may be the key to understanding a puzzling aspect of the struggle between Jacob and Esau over the blessing.  Although God explicitly informs Abraham that "it is through Isaac that your offspring shall be continued" (21:12) and not through Ishmael or any of his other sons, He does not reveal to Isaac which of his sons is to continue the covenant.  Had God revealed the matter to Isaac it would have certainly prevented much tension and confusion.  God's silence is not incidental.  Why did God withhold this critical information from Isaac? 

          I would like to propose that God did not reveal to Isaac that Jacob was the son who was to be blessed because Jacob was not yet fully ready to receive the blessing.  Jacob's personality and character were still in their formative stages.  Isaac, coming on in years, desired to bless his sons but it was still too early for Jacob to receive the blessing.  The Torah describes him, at first, as a "mild man dwelling in tents."(25:27)  According to our sages, Jacob remained in the camp to study Torah.  Although highly spiritual, Jacob lacked the capacity to implement his study and ideas.  He remained passive, unable to leave an impact on his surroundings.  He was thus overshadowed by Esau who "was a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors"(ibid.).  Esau was a fighter, a powerful figure immersed in the harsh realities of life.  Jacob had to develop his leadership potential and embrace a more active approach before receiving the blessing.  This is perhaps intimated by Isaac's statement before being deceived into blessing Jacob: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau" (27:22).  It is only through the combination of Jacob's voice, his moral and spiritual outlook, and the hands of Esau, his courage and strength, that Jacob is blessed.  This blessing, however, is received through deceit.  Jacob must don his brother's clothing and pretend he is Esau.  The strength and courage are not his own.  He must therefore escape from Esau and leave for exile. 

          Upon his departure, we find Jacob in totally different circumstances.  He no longer dwells in a tent but rather sleeps outside unsheltered.  Jacob displays power and initiative upon arriving "to the land of the Easterners."  When he for the first time sees Rachel, he immediately rolls the stone which covers the mouth of the well, a feat usually requiring several shepherds, and voluntarily waters the flock (29:10).  Jacob demonstrates great acumen and a keen understanding of the ways of nature in his agreement with Laban over his pay.  He manages to manipulate nature to his own advantage (30:25 ff).  On the other hand, after Laban pursues Jacob alleging that he stole his idol, Jacob indignantly responds by testifying to his honesty: "These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock..."(31:38).  The same Jacob who deceived his father exhibits extraordinary integrity and trustworthiness while working for Laban.  Jacob, upon returning to the land of Israel, no longer feels inferior to his brother Esau.  This is perhaps intimated by the dialogue between Jacob and the angel.  When his father, Isaac, asks him to identify himself, he lies and answers: "I am Esau your firstborn"(27:19).  When, however, Jacob, is asked by the angel, upon his return to Israel,: "What is your name?", he replies this time, truthfully and unabashedly, Jacob.  He no longer feels the need to imitate Esau. 

          To merit the blessing, however, there remains one last obstacle.  Jacob can not eternally flee from Esau.  He must stand up to his older brother.  God, however, does not desire a physical conflict between brothers.  They are both, after all, sons of Isaac.  For this reason, Jacob first encounters Esau's angel.  As already stated, Esau's angel represents the spirit of Esau and the future nation of Edom.  Jacob manages to stand up to the angel and compels him to acknowledge his right to the blessing.  Once this is done, Jacob's showdown with Esau is actually superfluous.  Jacob has already proven his superiority by prevailing over Esau's angel. 

          God later commands Jacob to go to Beth El where he appears to him and confirms that which was already conceded by Esau's angel.  "You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.  The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you and to your offspring to come..."(35:10,12).  Our parasha then concludes with a list of the descendants of Esau, indicating his exclusion from the covenant of Abraham (chap. 36, compare to 25:12 ff).  It is Esau who must now go into exile: "Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob"(36:6).  Jacob, or more correctly, Israel, alone, continues the covenant of Abraham.

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