Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 20 November 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

A Historic Struggle

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

After twenty years in Lavan’s home, with his family completely grown, Yaakov sets off to resettle in the Land of his fathers. He prepares for a face-off with his brother Esav, who has been plotting to kill him for some 35 years.

This encounter is even more consequential than it seems. Just as Yaakov and Esav are at odds with each other here, so they stand opposed to each other for the duration of history. Yaakov has spent the last twenty years raising his children; he is the hard working family man. Esav has spent this time becoming a political force, the leader of an army, a chief of his tribe. Yaakov represents family life, serving others, and seeing to their welfare and happiness. Esav represents the glitter of political power and might. The struggle between them and the outcome of this struggle foreshadow a raging battle that has haunted humanity for thousands of years. In the words of Rav Hirsch:

“Is it sufficient just to be a human being, and are political power and social creativity of no significance unless they lead to the loftiest of all human aspirations, or, on the contrary, does everything that is human in man, in home, and in family life exist only to serve the purposes of political triumph?”

The night before this fateful encounter, Yaakov experiences an even more fateful encounter, with his brother’s angel. This adversary wrestles with Yaakov the entire night, as Yaakov attempts to protect himself. The angel realizes that he cannot prevail against Yaakov, and he is able only to injure his leg. The angel then asks to be released, for the dawn is breaking, but Yaakov refuses let him go until the angel blesses him: “You will no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have become the commanding power before G-d and men, since you have prevailed.”

As long as the night prevails, Yaakov’s adversary appears to have the upper hand, but as soon as day breaks it is Yaakov who sets the terms to end the struggle. All he asks is that instead of hatred and hostility, the adversary — other nations — extend their blessing and support. During the long night of exile that enemy seeks to destroy Yaakov, quashing his identity and extinguishing his values. While the enemy, reincarnated in every generation, attacked throughout our long bitter history, he saw that he could not prevail — nothing would extinguish us or force our complete assimilation. Yaakov sought not to destroy the other; he wanted only not to fall, and in that he succeeded. The goal of history — realized at daybreak — is the recognition that happiness and progress depend on those principles which Yaakov has lived by throughout the ages. No longer shall he be known as “Yaakov” — he who holds on to the heel — but rather “Yisrael” — he who shows the world that G-d towers above all.

This final blessing, we are told, will happen “there.” There, where Yaakov stood, poised to return to the Land of his future, set on a course to build the Jewish People. It is “there” that the angel blessed Yaakov, by changing his name. And it is “there” — on the soil of our Promised Land and en route to our promised future — that we stand today, waiting for dawn to break, for Yaakov, the downtrodden, to be recognized as Yisrael, who has taught the world the way of G-d.

  • Source: Bereishet 32:8; 32:27-32; Collected Writings, Vol. VIII, “The Jewish Wayfarer’s Sustenance,” p. 229

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