Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayishlach December 9, 2011

Rarely, if at all, do we perceive when a specific moment or event in our life contains within it such a depth of effect that generations of our descendants are qualitatively affected because of that one single experience of ours.  This is exactly what we have in this week’s Torah portion.

We read in Beresheit/Genesis 32 that the patriarch, Yaacov, is returning to the Land of Israel with his wives and children and on the way will encounter his brother, Esav, who is approaching him with 400 men.  Yaacov is very frightened for he well remembers that some 20 years earlier, Esav had determined to kill him.  He therefore prepares a generous gift from his own wealth and dispatches messengers to deliver it to Esav.  He prays to Hashem for deliverance from his brother’s evil intent towards him and takes practical action to protect his family.  He divides his large entourage into two camps thinking that if Esav attacks one at least the other will be safe.

After settling his family in the two camps, we read that “Yaacov was left alone…and he wrestled…”

It was night and Yaacov is completely alone in the dark.  Without a doubt, he is wrestling within himself, symbolic of every man’s inner struggle between good and evil.  But there is much more to it than that.

He “wrestles with a man” throughout the long night until the break of dawn.  What is the message here?

In fact, there are several.

Wrestling all night is a vivid prophetic picture of the future of Yaacov’s descendants to the present day.  “Night” represents the centuries of Jewish history that will pass before the glorious day of the arrival of the Mashiach, alluded to as ‘the break of dawn.’

The very essence of Israel is to continue to struggle ‘all night’ — to wrestle with its own calling, to stand fast in the face of opposition and to believe without wavering in the promises of the Covenant made by Hashem with Avraham.  Indeed, one of the thirteen articles of faith penned by Maimonides is this: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of Mashiach; even though he tarry, nevertheless, I yearn every day for his coming.” 

The Midrash identifies Yaacov’s opponent as Esav’s angel who when he perceived he could not overcome Yaacov, struck his side and dislocated Yaacov’s hip.  If you have ever known someone who suffered a broken hip, or a dislocated hip, you already know that this condition is extremely debilitating.  The hips support the upper body.  Generally a broken or dislocated hip renders the person unable to stand, much less to continue to wrestle — which is exactly what Yaacov did!

Our Patriarch continued the struggle until dawn, demonstrating to us that when daybreak comes, the power of the opponent is broken.  When the dawn of Mashiach’s appearance arrives, every opponent of Israel will be rendered powerless.

And not only that….

When Esav’s angel saw that he was unable to vanquish Yaacov, he said, ‘Let me go for the dawn is breaking.’  But Yaacov responded, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’  It was not enough just to prevail.  Yaacov wanted his opponent’s blessing. 

And what is the blessing Esav’s angel gives to Yaacov?  Freely translated, the angel says, ‘You are Yaacov no more; you are Israel because you struggled with G-d and man and you have prevailed.’

The day will come when all the nations who have refused to recognize and affirm Israel’s divine mission, who resented Israel’s birthright and blessing, will themselves finally bless Israel and submit to its leadership.  The prophet Isaiah spoke of it eloquently:

“Thus says the L-rd G-d, ‘I will left up My hand to the nations and raise My banner to the peoples and they shall bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their backs.  Kings shall tend to your children and their queens shall serve you as nurses.  They shall bow down to you [Israel], face to the ground, and lick the dust of your feet and you shall know that I am Hashem.  Those who trust in Me shall not be ashamed.’ ”  Isaiah 49:22-23

After long years of enmity between the brothers, reconciliation occurs between Yaacov and Esav, but only after Yaacov wrestles and suffers the dislocation of his hip.  From that day on, he limps and the Sages suggest that his limp is a sign of the pain Israel carries when some of its children turn away from walking with Hashem because of the struggle involved in seeking a life of holiness.

In Tune with Torah this week = coming to terms with the reality that wrestling is a normal, even desirable part of life for it is in our ‘wrestling’ that we are changed — as was Yaacov — from being known as a ‘supplanter’ to becoming Israel, a prince of G-d.

Shabbat Shalom

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