Yaakov lived in his Uncle Lavan’s house for 20 years. Yaakov had come alone, penniless, and completely righteous. Now, after living with the scoundrel Lavan for two decades, Yaakov remained a perfect tzaddik. He had passed his first test with flying colors. He now had four wives, 11 of the 12 tribes, and his daughter Dina. After the birth of his 11th son, Joseph, Yaakov, was ready to return to his parents’ home and establish his own home in the shadow of his parents to cultivate the growth of the Jewish nation.
Leaving Lavan’s house, Yaakov recognized that he would have to confront his brother Esav, who had vowed to kill him and who was approaching with 400 seasoned warriors.
Yaakov prepared for the encounter by praying to Hashem, sending Esav a gift, and, as a last resort in case of war, splitting his camp into two. The encounter was expected to happen the next day, and the stage was set.
The Torah then presents another, seemingly unrelated, episode with Yaakov, that comes out of nowhere. The Midrash informs us that Yaakov had left a few small vessels on the other side of the river and went back to retrieve them. There, all alone, the Torah tells us of a strange encounter (Genesis 32:25-33):
כה) וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר
כו) וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ
כז) וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם בֵּרַכְתָּנִי
כח) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב
כט) וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל
ל) וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה נָּא שְׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ שָׁם
לא) וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם פְּנִיאֵל כִּי רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי
לב) וַיִּזְרַח לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת פְּנוּאֵל וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ עַל יְרֵכוֹ
לג) עַל כֵּן לֹא יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר עַל כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה
25) And Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26) When the man perceived that he could not overcome Yaakov, he struck the socket of Yaakov’s hip; so Yaakov’s hip socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him. 27) Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn has broken.”
28) And Yaakov said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
He said to him, “What is your name?”
He replied, “Yaakov.”
29) He said, “No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have succeeded.”
30) Then Yaakov inquired and said, “Please tell me your name.”
And he said, “Why do you inquire of my name?” And he blessed him there.
31) So Yaakov named the place Penial – “For I have seen the Divine face-to-face yet my life was spared.” 32) The sun rose for him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on his hip. 33) Therefore, the Children of Israel do not eat the displaced sinew on the hip socket to this day, because he struck Yaakov’s hip socket on the displaced sinew.
What exactly happened here? Who was this man, and why was he fighting with Yaakov? Where did he need to leave to after the fight, and why didn’t Yaakov let him go until he received a blessing? What is the significance of their discussion about names? And why does this episode take place right before Yaakov meets with Esav?
The Torah is the instruction manual for the Jewish nation. In it, Hashem has detailed their unique purpose in the world and how they are expected to fulfill it. Yaakov, the father of the twelve tribes that became the Jewish nation, epitomizes the force of good in the world. Esav and his descendants epitomize evil in the world. As long as evil reigns Hashem’s reality, the essence of good, is obscured, so much so that people often ask, “Where is/was G-d?” when something bad happens, especially to a good person. This is one of the most difficult questions to answer, and many people have used this question as their reason for leaving Judaism.
So why did Hashem create evil? The answer is – so that it may be defeated. Hashem wanted us to earn our reward rather than give it to us as a freebie. If we were created to do only good, we would not be entitled to reward for doing the right thing since we’d have no choice but to do it. When, however, there is a choice, since we can choose to do the wrong thing, we are worthy of reward for not doing so. It always requires more effort and resolve to overcome the force of evil that challenges us since the wrong choice is always the easier and more appealing choice to make. But it is presented only as an option to be overcome. This applies both on a personal and on a national basis. Our goal as individuals and as a nation is to defeat the power of evil and to be models of Hashem’s goodness of in the world. This brings Godliness into the world and makes Hashem visible to all. That is what we call a Kiddush Hashem – Sanctification of Hashem’s name.
Our entire world revolves around the conflict between good and evil. With the incident of Yaakov’s wrestling match, Hashem has given us a bird’s eye view of how this conflict will play itself out through time.
Our Sages teach us that the man who fought with Yaakov was really the angel of Esav in the form of a man. The idea of an angel fighting with Yaakov teaches us that the power of evil is a force created by Hashem and thus has a spiritual source. The angel could not overcome Yaakov because Yaakov was pure and completely perfect in his faith and service to Hashem.
Avraham and Yitzchak were also beacons of goodness in the world. Why didn’t the force of evil try to take them down? Why was only Yaakov challenged in this way?
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagan) explains that the secret to the Jewish people’s survival is Torah study, the attribute of Jacob. Therefore, the evil force didn’t oppose Avraham (who represented kindness) or Yitzchak (who represented service to Hashem), because it knew that even if the Jewish people give charity and pray to Hashem, they could still be lured away from the ways of the Torah and become like all the other nations. But, when the Jewish people study the Torah and adhere to it, his battle is lost. The Torah gives a Jew the understanding of his purpose in life and the strength to overcome evil. This keeps him loyal to his mission.
With this information, we can begin to make sense of this episode in the Torah.
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ – And Yaakov was left alone.
The Sages explain that the word לבדו , alone, describes the supreme and unique level of perfection that Yaakov alone had reached. This very word לבדו is used by Isaiah in Chapter 2 verse 11 to describe Hashem- וְנִשְׂגַּב יְדֹוָד לְבַדּוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא: When the Mashiach comes, the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, will recognize that there is only Hashem and no other gods or forces in the world. As a human being, Yaakov, had reached the highest level of perfection possible, and was singular in his righteousness. Similarly, Hashem will be recognized as the one and only G-d, on the day that evil is terminated.
Yaakov’s level of perfection created the most appropriate time for a showdown between the forces of evil and good, which would create the template for all time; good will always prevail over evil.
The battle wasn’t easy. They wrestled all night, and as much as the angel of Esav tried to topple Yaakov, he could not. Yaakov was solid in his Torah and his commitment to Hashem, and Esav’s angel could not bring him down.
The defeated angel asked Yaakov to “let him go, for the dawn has broken.” As a new day breaks, it is time for the angels to praise Hashem for the blessings of the new day. His turn had finally come, but he needed Yaakov’s permission to leave.
Why was this his first time to praise Hashem, just after his defeat? The answer is that the force of evil’s sole purpose is only to present a challenge but then to be defeated. This was his first-time experiencing defeat and thus he had finally accomplished his mission.
In other words, in the hands of a tzaddik evil is but a tool through which to achieve closeness to Hashem. Finding himself under Yaakov’s control, Esav’s angel now needed Yaakov’s permission to leave.
Yaakov, however, was not going to squander this opportunity. He told the angel, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
What was the blessing that Yaakov wanted from him? Rashi explains that Esav felt that he was entitled to Yitzchak’s blessing, and that Yaakov had stolen what was rightfully belonged to Esav. Yaakov wanted the angel of Esav to admit that he, Yaakov, was the one worthy of the blessings to begin with and that he had only taken what was rightfully his.
The angel responded. “No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have succeeded.”
The angel complied with Yaakov’s wish, changing his name from “Yaakov,” which derives from the word עקב – heel, implying an underhanded way of doing things, to “Yisrael,” which means because you were capable of defeating the angel of Esav, you are the one who really deserved the blessings.
Although the angel was unsuccessful in toppling Yaakov, the Torah tells us that he did injure Yaakov by dislocating his hip.
When he (the man) perceived that he could not overcome him (Yaakov), he struck the socket of his hip; so Yaakov’s hip socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him.
What is the significance of this? Where was the injury manifest?
The significance of Yaakov’s thigh carries two different interpretations.
The Midrash sees the thigh as referring to Yaakov’s offspring:
שכל טוב (בובר) פרשת וישלח
ותקע כף ירך יעקב. זחח לבם של מקצת בני דור השמד יוצאי ירך יעקב וניטמאו:
He removed some of the hearts of some of Yaakov’s descendants from Hashem and they became sullied by the Romans.
Unfortunately, we feel the effects of Yaakov’s dislocated hip very strongly today in the assimilation of Yaakov’s descendants.
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the thigh, which supports the body, represents the supporters of Torah, those individuals financially capable of supporting Torah institutions. Esav’s angel was unable to touch the actual Torah of Yaakov, so he resorted to seek to weaken Torah study by limiting its financial support.
Indeed, we see the effects of Yaakov’s dislocated hip in this sense, too. Worthy Torah institutions struggle to make payroll month after month for lack of proper support. Knowing this, those of us who appreciate the importance of Torah study to the Jewish people and the world, need to redouble our efforts to give as much money as possible to support Torah institutions.
As a result of Yaakov’s dislocated hip, we received the third mitzvah in the Torah, not to eat the גיד הנשה – sinew of the animal.
33) Therefore, the Children of Israel are not to eat the displaced sinew on the hip socket to this day, because he struck Yaakov’s hip socket on the displaced sinew.
With the use of the word “therefore” the Torah connects this prohibition to the story of Yaakov and the angel of Esav. What is the connection?
The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this is not optional; rather, it is a commandment to remind us of a very important lesson.
ספר החינוך פרשת וישלח מצוה ג
משרשי מצוה זו, כדי שתהיה רמז לישראל שאף על פי שיסבלו צרות רבות בגליות מיד העמים ומיד בני עשו, שיהיו בטוחים שלא יאבדו, אלא לעולם יעמוד זרעם ושמם, ויבוא להם גואל ויגאלם מיד צר. ובזכרם תמיד ענין זה על יד המצוה שתהיה לזכרון, יעמדו באמונתם ובצדקתם לעולם. ורמז זה הוא לפי שאותו מלאך שנלחם עם יעקב אבינו, שבא בקבלה שהיה שרו של עשו, רצה לעקרו ליעקב מן העולם הוא וזרעו ולא יכול לו, וציערו בנגיעת הירך, וכן זרע עשו מצער לזרע יעקב, ולבסוף תהיה להם ישועה מהם, כמו שמצינו באב שזרחה לו השמש לרפואתו ונושע מן הצער. כן יזרח לנו השמש של משיח וירפאנו מצערנו ויגאלנו, אמן במהרה בימינו
At the root of this mitzvah is a hint to the Jewish nation that even though they may suffer many troubles at the hands of the world’s nations and Esav’s children, they should feel sure that they will never cease to exist; rather, they will remain forever. And a savior will come and redeem them from the hands of their oppressors. By remembering this through this mitzvah, we will gain the strength to stand firm in our belief in Hashem and to remain righteous.
The hint to this is because the angel who fought with Yaakov was the angel of Esav, who sought to uproot Yaakov and his descendants from the world, but he couldn’t overcome him. But he did injure him by dislocating his hip bone. So, too, Esav’s descendants will oppress Yaakov’s children, but, in the end, they will be saved as we saw with our Forefather Yaakov, that the sun rose to heal him from his injury and he was saved from his pain. So, too, the sun of the Mashiach will rise and heal us from our suffering and redeem us speedily in our times.
Yaakov was 99 years old when he fought with Esav’s angel. That was 3,572 years ago, and in the course of that time we have seen the truth of the lesson of the sinew. We have suffered much by the hands of the other nations and, especially, at the hands of Esav’s descendants. Miraculously, we are still here. And just as we have seen the fulfillment of this prophesy, may we also merit to see the conclusion of the story with the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.