From Yaakov To Yisrael (Part 3): Divine Altercation – Why Yaakov Fought The Angel

Let’s Review

In Parts 1 and 2 we have seen a clear developing pattern from the beginning of Yaakov’s life. The Torah introduced us to Yaakov’s character through three anecdotes:

  1. His peculiar birth.
  2. An explicit description of his personality – “Ish Tam.”
  3. The story of Esav verbally transferring his birthright to Yaakov. We saw this as well as the importance of Yaakov’s contrast with Esav in Part 1.

Part 2 corroborated our theories regarding Yaakov’s developing character. Each of the next two stories — Yaakov’s stealing the bracha and Yaakov’s time with Lavan — highlighted clear patterns in Yaakov’s behavior, such as his requiring prompting to take action, and his tendency to flee from confrontation1.

The story we will cover here in Part 3 — Yaakov’s fight with the angel — ties Parts 1 and 2 together. As we will see, the fight with the angel not only confirms our observations about Yaakov’s character, but clearly displays that Yaakov’s fear of confrontation is vital to both who he is and to how he will need to develop in order to become Yisrael, the namesake of the Jewish people.

Story Three: Return To Canaan & Yaakov’s Encounter With Esav

Immediately following the conclusion of Yaakov’s encounter with Lavan, the Torah transitions to Yaakov’s next challenge: Esav. Yaakov had stalled this encounter by retreating to the house of Lavan in the first place, however, as we noted, God channeled Yaakov back to Canaan, telling him to leave the house of Lavan.

God Promotes The Yaakov-Esav Showdown

R’ Menachem Leibtag suggests that God’s intention in instructing Yaakov to leave Lavan and return to Canaan was to force Yaakov to encounter Esav. He supports this theory by noting that when Yaakov initially fled Canaan, Rivka made a specific condition for his return:

Genesis 27:43-44:

וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְקוּם בְּרַח־לְךָ אֶל־לָבָן אָחִי חָרָנָה׃ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ עִמּוֹ יָמִים אֲחָדִים עַד אֲשֶׁר־תָּשׁוּב חֲמַת אָחִיךָ׃

“So now, my son, heed my voice and arise; flee to my brother Laban, to Charan. And remain with him a short while until your brother’s wrath subsides. Until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send and bring you from there…”

Rivka stated that when the threat of Esav had subsided she would send for Yaakov. Yet the Torah does not tell us that Rivka sent for him. Rather, as we have noted, God instructed Yaakov to return. Thus, as R’ Leibtag notes, it seems as though God is intervening and pushing Yaakov toward a confrontation with Esav. Note the connection to our study: God is pushing Yaakov to act confrontationally against Esav, his antagonist.

Yaakov Fears Confrontation

Unsurprisingly, Yaakov’s approach to encountering Esav is anything but confrontational.

Genesis 32:7-9:

וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים אֶל־יַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר בָּאנוּ אֶל־אָחִיךָ אֶל־עֵשָׂו וְגַם הֹלֵךְ לִקְרָאתְךָ וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת אִישׁ עִמּוֹ׃ וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּוֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּאן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אִם־יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה׃

“The angels returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother, to Esau; moreover, he is heading toward you, and four hundred men are with him. Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him. So he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. For he said, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down then the remaining camp shall survive.’”

When he hears that Esav is approaching him with 400 men, despite not necessarily knowing Esav’s intention (it turns out later that Yaakov had it all wrong), Yaakov panics. Moreover, he immediately begins devising a method to cut his losses, making concessions that would potentially kill half of his family(!), as indicated by his dividing the “people with him.” This interpretation is corroborated by Rabeinu Bechayey’s position that the purpose of this division into two groups was to separate Yaakov’s children into different camps. Seemingly, Yaakov perceives this confrontation to be a helpless situation.

After praying to God and preparing the tribute he would give to Esav (32:10-22), the Torah gives a cryptic description of a mysterious encounter Yaakov has with an “angel” as he and his party cross the Jabbok river. Rashbam’s approach to this encounter (as explained by R’ Leibtag) will not only clarify the purpose of this encounter, but will also have significant implications for our broader study of Yaakov’s character development.

Yaakov Crosses The River: Where Is Yaakov Going?

Genesis 32:22-24:

וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל־פָּנָיו וְהוּא לָן בַּלַּיְלָה־הַהוּא בַּמַּחֲנֶה׃ וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת־שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת־שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת־אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק׃ וַיִּקָּחֵם וַיַּעֲבִרֵם אֶת־הַנָּחַל וַיַּעֲבֵר אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ׃

“So the tribute passed on before him while he spent that night in the camp. But he got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. And when he took them and had them cross over the stream, he sent over his possessions.”

While most commentators perceive this river-crossing to be a part of the journey toward Esav, Rashbam interprets Yaakov’s actions as consistent with those of his character in previous stories and posits that Yaakov was in fact running away from Esav. With regards to the text this fits quite well, as it is strange that the text specified that he had settled for the night and then proceeds to say that he arose during that same night. Why did Yaakov arise in the middle of the night after he had already settled for that night? Was it to travel in Esav’s direction? It would appear as though Rashbam’s interpretation — that he was running away — is a better fit for the text.

This interpretation is contextually sound as well. As noted above, Yaakov is terrified by the potential outcomes of this confrontation. Thus, it is quite logical that he might try to escape Esav.

Lastly, this interpretation fits very well with our understanding of Yaakov’s character and tendencies. Yaakov consistently runs from confrontation. He did so from Esav back in Parshat Toldot, and he did so from Lavan in Parshat Vayetze. It is fitting that he would take the same approach here in Parshat Vayishlach.

Struggling With The Angel: What Is The Point?

In the middle of this midnight-dash Yaakov encounters a strange “man,” widely interpreted to be an angel. Through the scope of Rashbam’s interpretation, the subsequent pesukim fall into place beautifully and reveal a crucial moment in Yaakov’s development.

Genesis 32:25-29:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר׃ וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּנִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל׃

“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled him until the break of dawn. When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘let me go, for dawn has broken.’ And he said, I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob.’ He said, ‘no longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”

R’ Leibtag explains that through Rashbam’s approach the purpose of these previously confusing pesukim becomes clear: God sends the angel because he does not want Yaakov to run. In fact, Rashbam adds that the injury Yaakov sustains (32:26) is punishment for his running away. Yaakov wishes to flee confrontation once more but, through the angel, God sends Yaakov a message: Stop running; stand up for yourself. Yaakov’s physical struggle with the angel both physically and metaphorically represents Yaakov’s internal struggle to assert himself. Once Yaakov had physically overcome the angel, and metaphorically overcome his passive nature, the angel tells Yaakov that his name would be changed from Yaakov — the name associated with Yaakov’s tricky and passive ways — to Yisrael, which, according to Rashi, connotes nobility and officer-like qualities. It is clear from the text’s recording of the angel’s explanation that assertiveness is the characteristic associated with the name Yisrael, for the angel gives the reason for the name: “… For you have striven… and have overcome (32:29).”

One could even say the encounter with Esav that follows proves that Yaakov received this intended message.

Genesis 33:1-2:

וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הַיְלָדִים עַל־לֵאָה וְעַל־רָחֵל וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת׃ וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת־יַלְדֵיהֶן רִאשֹׁנָה וְאֶת־לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים וְאֶת־רָחֵל וְאֶת־יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים׃

“Jacob raised his eyes and saw – behold, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men – so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two handmaids. He put the handmaids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.”

Recall that before the struggle with the angel, Yaakov’s plan was to divide his camp into two groups. As noted earlier, Rabeinu Bechayey posited that this meant a division of his family-members and children into two groups (the most logical strategic division for Yaakov as he tried to cut his losses). Yet, after the struggle with the angel, in his actual encounter with Esav, Yaakov’s entire family — all his wives and children — are present. Hence, we see that in the aftermath of the episode with the angel — the lesson in confrontation — Yaakov adjusted his strategy and did not divide his camps as he initially planned.

[Many commentators point out that Yaakov’s name had not yet changed to Yisrael because the angel said, “… No longer will it be said,” using the future tense. Furthermore, another obvious question arises in that even once Yaakov’s name does change to Yisrael, the Torah continues to toggle between the two names. There are many suggested answers, however, these answers are beyond the scope of our study and so will not be explicitly addressed.]

Who Is Yisrael?

It is clear that names play a major role in Yaakov’s life. At his birth, Yaakov is given a name that would reflect his personality — Yaakov, the Ish Tam. The changing of Yaakov’s name symbolically represents the change of his character from Yaakov to someone and something else — “Yisrael.”

“Yisrael” puts a name to the attributes we have been discussing all along. Yisrael is the refined version of Yaakov. Whereas Yaakov represents the Ish Tam, Yisrael represents one who has “striven” and “overcome.” As we have stressed, Yaakov’s need for refinement does not suggest that the traits of the Ish Tam are negative traits, nor does it suggest that the Ish Sadeh is ideal (after all, Esav was the Ish Sadeh). Rather, in order to be a well-rounded and effective leader, one must learn to harness either and both of these characteristics. Yisrael represents the balance of these traits and the ability to respectively utilize them in their appropriate times.

This is perhaps best expressed in Hilchot Deot 1:4 of Rambam’s Mishnah Torah. Rambam writes that the ideal character does not perpetually associate with either extreme, but rather embodies the trait of “bein onit”, balance. Rambam goes on to explain that this balanced approach does not suggest an even-keel response to all situations. Rather, it means having the presence of mind to control and channel different characteristics for appropriate use.

Yisrael represents the embodiment of Rambam’s “bein onit;” the mastering of the two extremes — Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh.

Relating The Story To Developing Themes

The third story in our study, the story of Yaakov’s struggle with the angel (we are including Yaakov’s encounter with Esav that comes after the struggle with the angel as part of one story because the significance of the encounter is its having been prompted by the struggle with the angel), is key in proving the significance of the themes we have observed until now. God’s expression (through the angel) of Yaakov’s need to act as Yisrael confirms the importance of the tendencies in Yaakov’s behavior observed in the previous stories. Those stories paint pictures of Yaakov’s characteristics that are necessary for our understanding the significance of the struggle with the angel and the name-change to Yisrael. The previous stories were a build-up to this moment.

The following chart displays the developing themes of Yaakov’s character through the 3 stories we have addressed:

Stolen Bracha
Life with Lavan
Struggle with Angel
Antagonist Esav Lavan Esav/Angel of Esav
Who prompts Yaakov to act? Rivka God God
How Yaakov handles the situation Tricks Yitzchak and then runs away Runs away Runs away (until the angel intervenes)

When reviewing this chart recall that these recurring themes are examples that support Yaakov’s role in the initial paradigm of Yaakov vs. Esav, the heel-grabber vs. the eldest; the Ish Tam vs. the Ish Sadeh. Time and again different abusers test him, but time and again he fails to stand up to them in self-defense.

Looking Ahead

While this 3rd story could make for a nice bow to tie together Yaakov’s development into Yisrael, to conclude here would be problematic on account of the next and final story in which Yaakov is the Torah’s protagonist: The story of Deena in Shechem. It is additionally fitting that this not be the end of Yaakov’s transition because, as mentioned earlier, Yaakov’s name change was given in future tense — “No longer will it be said…” — implying that Yaakov’s transition to and embodiment of Yisrael was not yet complete.

1. It might be a good idea to quickly review these episodes and ideas in Part 2.

Parshas Ki Sisa: The Word In Kiddush You Never Think About

Parshas Tetzaveh: Which One Of Your Five Senses Is Not Like The Rest?