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The Struggle Between Yaakov and the Angel of Esav: A Metaphor for Jewish History Still Unfolding

One of the major episodes in parshat Yayishlach is the confrontation between Yaakov and the "man" (32:25-30), whom Rashi identifies as the "sar" (administering angel) of Esav.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and others view the confrontation between Esav's angel and Yaakov as a metaphor for Jewish history. For example, in 32:25, it is said "And Jacob was left alone," portending how tragically, throughout their history in galus, the Jewish people will regularly find themselves in a helpless state, abandoned without the assistance of any allies, to face persecution at the hands of their enemies (chronicled, for example, with respect to the Holocaust, in David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews). It is also noted that the pasuk says "Va'ya'avek ish imo" - indicating that the "man" was the aggressor, while Yaakov acted in self-defense. Yet, much as Yaakov survived the confrontation and moved forward with his life while the angel disappeared, so too despite constant persecution, the Jewish people have survived, even if injured and weary, while their enemies have disappeared from the pages of history.

To quote R' Hirsch concerning the message for later generations from the struggle between Esav's angel and Yaakov: "As long as night reigns on earth...it is with the spirit of Esau, duly equipped with the orb of empire, the sceptre and the sword...that Jacob will have to contend, until the Night wanes from the earth."

R' Hirsch wrote these words in the late 1800's - one wonders how he would have interpreted the seminal events of Jewish history in the 20th century - the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel - in light of the parable. Let's develop this thought - first, by further exploring relevant details of the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav's angel, and then identifying parallels in recent Jewish history.

We know that Yaakov sent "messengers" (identifed by Rashi as "malachim mamash" - actual angels) to discern the intentions of Esav. The response of the messengers was that they could not ascertain Esav's intentions - on the one hand, there seemed to be evidence of brotherly love, while on the other hand, there was evidence of violent intent (the ambiguity of Esav's actions being expressed in the pasuk through the seeming redundancy of "el achicha, el Esav" - see Rashi 32:7). Therefore, Yaakov, acting with imperfect information; not wanting to be killed, nor wanting to kill (Rashi 32:8); and unsure of his own merits (see Rashi 32:11), implemented strategies that took all contingencies into account (note: IMHO, an analysis of Yaakov's "dilemma," given the information and choices available to him, from the standpoint of game theory, would be an interesting exercise; possibly also including an analysis of Esav's dilemma given the information and choices available to him as well - see more below).

If Yaakov was uncertain about Esav's intentions, we can also surmise that Esav was unsure of his chances against Yaakov.  Esav was undoubtedly familiar with the prophecy that "v'rav ya'avod tzair" (the greater will serve the lesser) (25:23); must have recalled Yitzchak's own explicit prediction that "thy brother thou shalt serve," (27:40); and had recently been advised by Yaakov's messengers of Yaakov's merits ("im Lavan garti") (32:5).

Yet, Esav was probably also aware of his own merits - living in the land of Israel, and performance of the mitzvah of kibud av v'em (see Berachos 4a), and may have also imagined that Yaakov was deserving of punishment for the "deceptions" he had visited upon Esav. Indeed, in Esav's mind, "deception" was the essence of the name "Yaakov" - 27:36 - "Hachi kara shemo Yaakov, vayakvayni zeh pa'amayim et bechorati lakach v'hinei ata lakach birchat - Is not his name Yaakov - he outwitted me ("vayakvayni") these two times, he took away my birthright and see, now he took away my blessing."

Given these considerations, Esav must have felt it was critical to find some manner of more accurately determining his chances of victory against Yaakov. In short, Esav was approaching Yaakov with 400 men (which certainly suggests that "battle" remained an option in Esav's mind), but understood that, despite his physical might, he still might not prevail as per the prophecies he had heard directly from the mouth of his father, Yitzchak.

IMHO, this seems to have been the purpose of the "angel" sent to struggle with Yaakov. Just as Yaakov sent messengers to Esav to better determine Esav's intent and plan accordingly, Esav apparently also sent a messenger to struggle with Yaakov, and thereby determine whether Yaakov's merits were so great that Esav would not prevail, or whether Esav's merits combined with Yaakov's culpability for his "deceptions" (signified for Esav, as noted, by the very name Yaakov), might tip the scales in Esav's favor.

Which brings us to the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav's angel. The angel struggled with Yaakov all night, but ultimately saw that he could not prevail, and therefore injured Yaakov on the thigh. Not content to let his adversary depart without something to show for his victory, Yaakov demanded a blessing. At which point, the angel asks a very odd question: "What is your name?"

Didn't the angel know Yaakov's name??? Of course, he did - as per the commentaries, this was none other than the Sar Esav sent to battle Yaakov!!!

Rather, I think the question was rhetorical. As noted, part of Esav's hope for victory may have been his belief that Yaakov was deserving of punishment for what Esav perceived as deceptions - which were embodied for Esav in Yaakov's name (27:36). In essence, then, what the angel discovered is that Esav had been mistaken. "Yaakov" was not vulnerable because of his deceptions, because, in fact, those "deceptions" were justified to fulfill Hashem's will. Therefore, when the angel asks Yaakov for his name, he is setting up Yaakov for the revelation that, going forward, his name will explicitly reflect the divine protection to which he is unambiguously entitled. As the angel reveals: "No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with men and you have overcome." (32:29). In other words, the name "Israel" unambiguously signifies that Hashem protects Yaakov (whereas the name "Yaakov" was ambiguous in this regard).

Undoubtedly, the outcome of the struggle between Sar Esav and Yaakov, and the assignment of a new name to Yaakov, must have been reported back to Esav, which would then explain the subsequent conciliatory approach of Esav. He understood that Yaakov's merits, and the protection from Hashem inherent in Yaakov's new name, would make it impossible to prevail. No longer was he dealing with a "Yaakov" - which did not clearly signify Yaakov's entitlement to Hashem's protection - but a "Yisrael." As such, what began as a confrontation ended as a reconciliation, after which Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisroel and Esav went on his way.

IMHO, if one accepts that the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav's angel is a metaphor for Jewish history, then it seems that Jewish history has played out exactly as the story has foretold. Throughout our exile, the nations of the Christian world (Edom) have sent "messengers" (i.e., their leaders and governments) in an effort to prevail against us and destroy the Jewish people. And we have suffered terribly. But we have endured.

In the 20th century, it seems, these persecutions culminated in the Holocaust - the greatest blow to the Jewish people, in terms of loss of life and the magnitude of the suffering, in our history. Yet, we survived and, a mere three years after the end of World War II, successfully fought - against all odds - to establish a sovereign nation in Eretz Yisroel.

It was at this point that the "emissaries" of the Christian world finally acknowledged that they could not prevail - that the Jewish people would not vanish - and thereby recognized us as "Israel." No longer were we simply the Jewish people in the eyes of the world, but, going forward, we were to be recognized as the nation of "Israel." In other words, if one accepts the metaphor, then one could conclude that the name "Israel" given to Yaakov by Esav's angel is reflected historically in the recognition by the UN (controlled at that time by the Christian world) of the new country of Israel.

Equally consistent with the parable, with the formation of the State of Israel, we have witnessed an historical transformation of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Christian world so that, whereas formerly that relationship was marked for centuries by persecution and antipathy, the Christian world has now reconciled with the Jewish people, and at least as far as their governments are concerned, now generally display a highly favorable and friendly approach to the Jewish people and State of Israel. This outcome was also predicted by the Torah - after Yaakov's name is changed to Israel, Esav reconciles (realizing that he cannot prevail against Yaakov).

Unfortunately, our confrontation is now with the descendants of Yishmael (whereas, historically, for many centuries, it was the Islamic world that displayed far greater tolerance to the Jewish people). On this point, I recall hearing a shiur from Rav Meir Goldwicht in which he referenced a passage in the Zohar to the effect that when the galus of Edom ends, it will be replaced with the final galus of Yishmael, which will play itself out in Eretz Yisroel as a confrontation between the descendants of Yitzchak and the descendants of Yishmael.

G-d willing, "hineh lo yanum v'lo yishan shomer Yisrael," and the outcome of this new confrontation will be the same - a reconciliation - perhaps symbolized by the ultimate ability of Yitzchak and Yishmael to jointly participate in the burial of their father, Avraham (25:9), much as Yaakov and Esav participated in the burial of their father after their reconciliation (35:29).

Yet, interestingly, while the Torah extensively discusses the nature and outcome of the conflict between Yaakov and Esav in great detail, the conflict between Yitzchak and Yishmael is not addressed at all. There are no stories of sales of birthrights, deceptions, confrontations, etc. So there is nothing to go on except the promise of Hashem to Avraham that it is through the descendants of Yitzchak that his legacy will be realized. B"EH bimhera b'yamenu.

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