PARSHAT Vayeitzei – 5784
Wrestling with Faith and Understanding
A small excerpt from this week’s Parsha that raises many questions but also provides valuable lessons. Let’s begin by reading the text and zooming in on various aspects.
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַ
Jacob was left alone. And a figure 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.
This text sheds light on Jacob’s actions after safely crossing the river with his entire family and possessions. The emphasis is on his return, as the Torah notes that “Jacob remained alone,” a term the rabbis connect to “lecado,” meaning “for his vessel.” This suggests that Jacob went back for his possessions due to his belief that every possession is a divine gift with a specific purpose for spiritual repair.
In this narrative, Jacob’s actions are highlighted as he returns after safely crossing the river with his entire family and possessions. The Torah notes that “Jacob remained alone,” “levado” in Hebrew, a term the rabbis interpret by connecting it to “lecado,” meaning “for his vessel.” Thus, the phrase is understood as “Jacob went back for his vessel.” He went back because he believes every possession is a Divine gift with a purpose for spiritual repair. Retrieving the vessels reflects his commitment to optimal use, ensuring they contribute to spiritual betterment as intended.
“Levado,” of course, also means that he truly went alone. It was a perilous undertaking with Esau’s soldiers nearby, but Jacob, fueled by complete emunah (trust in G-d), proceeded alone. However, being alone, without the protection of his (spiritual) community, made him vulnerable to an attack, in this case, by Esau’s angel. The physical wrestling between Jacob and the angel had a deeper spiritual significance – the angel aimed to challenge Jacob’s unwavering emunah.
This insight is derived from the term “וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק” (wrestled), where the word “אבק” (dust) is significant.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: This teaches that the dust [avak] from their feet ascended to the throne of glory.
The Throne of Glory is sometimes synonymous with emunah. The dust was intended to obscure Jacob’s emunah. Given that Jacob’s trust in G-d was of the highest level, the angel sought to challenge him by bringing Jacob to the brink of a life-threatening struggle. Even when faced with physical danger, where instincts typically prevail over reason, Jacob’s unwavering emunah remained steadfast, reflecting these three levels—logic, emotion, and instinct—of his trust in G-d.
At the moment dawn begins to break, the angel realizes that he will not emerge victorious. Dawn signifies the point when light penetrates the darkness, bringing increased clarity and insight into the recognition that G-d is the Creator and Judge of the world. As more light emerges, it becomes easier for humans, including Jacob in this story, to uphold their emunah (faith), and for those with less emunah, like us, to nurture its growth.
When the angel understands that he cannot overcome Jacob’s soul, he strikes him on the hip. The sages teach us that when evil cannot harm the core of your being, your soul, it attempts to inflict damage on the vulnerable aspects of your life by subjecting you to various external influences. We observe that Israel, over the years, has been exposed to various negative external influences such as slander, verbal abuse, intimidation, wars, etc. The dislocated hip thus symbolizes all the adversity that the people of Israel have endured.
Then angel said, “Be patient. God will soon appear to you and give you an alternative name. No longer shall it be said that your name is just Jacob [Ya’akov, from the verb akov—“ensnare”22], implying that you usurped Esau’s blessings, but rather, you will also be called Israel[Yisrael, from serarah, “nobility,” and also meaning “striven with God”], implying that you obtained the blessings from your father honorably, for you have striven with me—an angel of God—and with men—i.e., Esau and Laban—over what is rightfully yours, and you have prevailed over the three of us. I will be present to consent to this additional naming, thereby acknowledging your right to the birthright.“
The “blessing” that the angel was forced to give was his admission and confirmation that Jacob was the rightful recipient of the blessing that his father Isaac had originally wished to give to Esau.
After blessing Jacob, Jacob asks the angel for his name. This is remarkable. One might have expected this inquiry earlier. I can understand that if you know the angel before you is Raphael—the angel associated with healing—you might seek a blessing. However, this particular angel wrestled with Jacob, and who knows what “negative” name he might have. Why would you want to request a blessing associated with that name? A name reflects one’s essence. Jacob sought to understand the origin of the intense hatred and disdain that the Jewish people would endure throughout the ages. Knowing the source of this animosity might provide insight into alleviating the suffering it causes, but it could also diminish Jacob’s emunah. Paradoxically, not fully understanding the suffering allows us to place our trust entirely and solely in G-d.
The text highlights Jacob’s unwavering emunah (faith) during his encounter with an angel. The significance of “levado” (alone) is explained in connection to “lecado” (for his vessel), indicating Jacob’s return based on his belief in the divine purpose of every possession. Even alone, without protection from his spiritual community, he remains true to his emunah. The struggle with the angel represents different levels of emunah—logic, emotion, and instinct. The text underscores Jacob’s determination to maintain his emunah despite challenging circumstances. It concludes with Jacob seeking to understand the suffering of the Jewish people and the blessing he receives as recognition of his rightful claim to the blessing originally intended for Esau.
From this story, we can glean several valuable lessons
1. **Dedication to Spiritual Growth:** Jacob’s willingness to go back for his possessions, believing they served a divine purpose, illustrates a commitment to spiritual growth. It underscores the importance of consciously using material possessions for spiritual improvement.
2. **Unwavering Emunah (Faith):** Jacob’s determination and struggle with the angel demonstrate that his emunah is unwavering, even in challenging situations. It serves as a reminder to maintain our trust in God regardless of the challenges we face.
3. **Three Levels of Emunah:** The three levels of emunah—logic, emotion, and instinct—are illustrated by Jacob’s response to the angel’s attack. Even when physically endangered, his trust in God remains steadfast, highlighting the strength of these different levels.
4. **Spiritual Struggle:** The wrestling between Jacob and the angel indicates that spiritual growth often involves struggle and challenges. It reminds us to persevere in our spiritual journey despite difficulties.
5. **Understanding Suffering:** Jacob’s quest to understand the suffering of the Jewish people suggests that comprehending the origin of trials can be challenging. This serves as a reminder that despite our desire for understanding, maintaining emunah is essential.
6. **Blessings and Recognition:** The blessing Jacob receives confirms his rightful claim to the blessing originally intended for Esau. It reminds us that justice and fairness are ultimately acknowledged and rewarded.
These lessons can serve as guidance for our own spiritual paths and as inspiration to maintain faith even in challenging circumstances.
By Angelique Sijbolts
Rashi on Genesis 32:25:1 and Why Jacob Returns for His Small Vessel
 Chabad Article: An End to Limping, Zohar I 146a. 171a
 Kehut Chumash parsha Vayishlach
 Article AskNoah.org: How could the angel of Esau bless Jacob?
With thanks to B. Yaniger for the inspiration
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