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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he (Yaakov) said, "I will not let you leave, unless you bless me." (32:26)

Yaakov Avinu struggled through the dark night with an enigmatic figure whom Chazal say was actually the guardian angel of Eisav, identified with Samae-l, the personification of evil. We should address a number of issues in regard to the text. First, why did Yaakov deem it necessary to extract a blessing from Eisav's guardian angel? Did Hashem not already bless him? Was that not sufficient? Second, why did the angel ask Yaakov for his name? Did he not already know his name?

The Piazcesner Rebbe, zl, explains that we have a well-known principle, "maase avos siman l'banim," "the deeds of the Patriarchs are a portent for their descendants." Yaakov encountered the angel and struggled with him during the night. He bested the angel, but not before the angel touched the hip-socket of his thigh. When the angel desired to leave, Yaakov asked himself, "Will this same pattern occur to my children? After enduring trials and tribulations, sufferings and persecutions, will their salvation be limited? Although their enemies will not succeed in vanquishing them, and they will not succumb to the pressures exerted upon them by their enemies, they will not emerge completely triumphant. They will regrettably, return to the situation which prevailed before the crisis.

They will not lose - but they will not win, either. "No, this cannot be" said Yaakov. Rather the following attitude will prevail: "I will not let you leave, unless you bless me." After the sufferings are over, Hashem must liberate my descendants decisively, not simply remove them from their immediate crisis. To suffer and to return to the same situation that led to the suffering is a flawed victory.

Eisav's guardian angel is known to us as Samae-l. In the future, during the Messianic times, the letter "mem" of his name, which symbolizes misah, death, will be removed, consistent with the Navi Yeshaya's prophecy, "u'bila ha'maves lanetzach," "and death will be swallowed up forever." What will remain of his name will be Sae-l which is the numerical equivalent of two of Hashem's Names yud, kay, vav, kay, and aleph, daled, nun, yud, which both equal 91. He will then be as a holy angel counted among the celestial princes of the Heavenly Kingdom. After Yaakov struggled with the angel, he repaired that aspect of himself that was in the angel, thus preparing the angel for future redemption. At that point in the narrative, the angel was already sanctified and was now seeking good for Klal Yisrael. The angel now asked Yaakov, "What is your name?" Yaakov replied, "Yaakov." The angel responded that the name Yaakov is related to another time, a time when Yaakov is "grasping Eisav's heel." This implies that all of the acts of deliverance will be yours in the beginning, ab initio, not following persecution. You have now, indeed, triumphed.

With these words, the Piazcesner Rebbe gave a message of hope and encouragement to the hounded, ravaged Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. He gave them a reminder that they were and always would be sarim, princes. He taught them that while the struggle between Yaakov and Eisav, between good and evil, pointed to a deeper, more profound connection between them, a time would come when evil's personification would be transformed and elevated, bestowing blessings upon Klal Yisrael. Indeed, the angel envisioned a greater deliverance for Yaakov than the Patriarch himself even requested. Yaakov merely asked to be saved from his oppressions and his troubles. The angel proceeds to bless him with the name of Yisrael, implying that the plans of his enemies will be foiled before they even begin. May we soon merit to enjoy this blessing.

And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn… Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn has broken." (32:25,27)

The city of Pressburg, Hungary was known for its Torah scholars and distinguished lay leaders. One individual whose reputation was quite well-known, deservedly so, was Rav Leib Mochiach. The name Mochiach means reprover, which aptly describes his vocation. He would arouse and inspire, reprove and encourage the community, focusing on ethical conduct. He would lecture on Ahavas Yisrael, the love one should manifest for his fellow Jew, and the kindness he should show him. He was wont to say, "In Heaven, one's level of tziddkus, righteousness, is measured in accordance with the degree of ahavas Yisrael that he demonstrates. This is the difference between a tzaddik gamur, complete, true tzaddik, and one who is not complete. A tzaddik who is not complete will love a rasha who is not a rasha gamur, not totally evil. A tzaddik gamur loves all Jews - even one who is a total rasha."

Now that we have an idea of what type of person Rav Leib was, we can better appreciate the following story: One night a fire burst out in the store of one of the distinguished lay leaders of the community. His merchandise was all destroyed, and the individual was left penniless. Early that morning, Rav Leib came to the home of one of the city's wealthy members and said, "Now, when everyone's hearts are filled with compassion for the terrible loss incurred by our friend, we should go out and raise money for him, to help him get back on his feet." "But, Rebbe," responded the man, "it is almost zman Krias Shma, the time to recite the Shma. Let us go to shul and daven. After the prayers, we will go fundraising."

Rav Leib looked at him and said, "Now I understand a comment made by Rashi which had always bothered me. Regarding the pasuk detailing Yaakov's struggle with Eisav's guardian angel, "And a man wrestled with him," Rashi comments, This is Eisav's guardian angel. On the other hand, later on, when Yosef was searching for his brothers and he was met by a man, Rashi comments, This is the angel Gavriel. Why is this ish, man, different than the individual who fought with Yaakov. How was Rashi able to deduce that the angel who wrestled with Yaakov represented Eisav, and the angel that met Yosef was Gavriel?

Now I understand. Concerning Yaakov it is stated that after struggling throughout the night and prevailing, Yaakov asked the man for one slight favor - to bless him. The man responded, I have no time, I must go sing shirah, a song of praise, and pray." Such a man can be none other than Eisav's guardian angel. Regarding Yosef however, it is stated that the man found Yosef wandering, lost in the field and inquired of him, What do you seek? One who sees a man wandering in the field and takes time to help him must be the angel Gavriel. Certainly, he also had to go pray, but he felt that to give assistance to one who is lost takes precedence."

Incidentally, this is the custom as expressed by text in the Siddur. First, we say, Tzur Yisrael, Kumah B'ezras Yisrael, "Rock of Yisrael! Arise to the aid of Yisrael," Afterwards, we begin to pray the Shemoneh Esrai. A Jew in need takes precedence, even over prayer.

For You have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome. (32:29)

The text is enigmatic. One first triumphs over man, and then goes on to the spiritual challenges presented by Eisav's guardian angel. After all, is it not easier to succeed in the human arena than in the spiritual? Furthermore, where do we find Yaakov battling a human adversary? Indeed, this statement was made even before he met with Eisav. Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, takes a pragmatic approach towards explaining Yaakov's statement. Yaakov refers to no specific battle but, rather, to everyone's daily challenge: the challenge of fulfilling our responsibility in the two areas of our holy endeavor - bein adam la'Makom, between man and G-d; and bein adam la'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man. Man is confronted with constant challenges in these two arenas. His goal is to succeed in overcoming the hurdles that present themselves, impeding his way to success.

The Torah teaches us that in these two battlefronts, the one which is more difficult to master is the human challenge. Regrettably, there are some fine, upstanding observant Jews who do everything to satisfy the Torah demands which define man's relationship with G-d. They fall short, however, in the area of their inter-relationships with their fellow man. Yaakov Avinu triumphed in the area of the spirit and also succeeded in exemplifying himself in his ethical relationships with his fellow man.

There are volumes of stories which portray the care and sensitivity evinced by Jews from all walks of life and all areas of the religious spectrum. I recently came across the following narrative, which I feel depicts a unique aspect of sensitivity - one from which we can all learn.

Rabbi C.Y., Bloch, was a talmid, student, of the venerable rav and founder of Telshe Yeshivah, Horav Eliezer Gordon, zl. When Rabbi Bloch passed away in the early 40's, his position as rav in Jersey City was filled by Rabbi Chaim Levene, son of the Tzaddik of Yerushalayim, Horav Aryeh Levene, zl. When the chairman of the search committee called Rabbi Levene to notify him of their unanimous decision, he did not immediately accept the position. He asked for a week's time before he could respond. While his response was puzzling, the chairman agreed to wait. Only years later did anyone learn the reason for the delay.

Rabbi Bloch left an elderly widow. Before Rabbi Levene agreed to accept the position, he felt he owed her the courtesy of asking her permission. "You have always been the first lady of this congregation," he said to the widow, "and I am sure it will be difficult for you when someone else takes his place. I have come to ask your permission before I render my acceptance. If, in anyway you feel that you do not want me here, I will immediately leave."

Rabbi Bloch's widow began to cry as she responded to his sensitive words. "Now that my husband is gone, who is there that cares about me or thinks what I feel is important? I am so moved that you came here today." She paused for a moment and added, "Not only do I want you to stay and be the rabbi, but I now feel as if my own son were filling this position."

The relationship between the young rabbi and the window continued for years. Every Friday morning, he would walk up several flights of stairs to her modest apartment and spend a quiet hour with her, sharing with her the latest community events. One might suggest that he was acting beyond the letter of the law. He was being a real mench. I am not convinced that this is the case. The feelings of another Jew are as important to us as our own - especially those of a broken-hearted widow. He was acting in accordance with the law. It is just that he had a better understanding of the parameters of the laws of ethical conduct and sensitivity towards our fellow man.

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, "you have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land."… and they said, "Should he treat our sister like a harlot?" (34:30,31)

If we analyze the dialogue between Yaakov Avinu and his sons, it becomes apparent that Shimon and Levi's actions were not really deemed inappropriate. They had every right to take decisive action against the people of Shechem. Yaakov's basic critique was from a tactical perspective. By the very nature of their actions, they would rile up the surrounding pagans, inciting them to take revenge. Indeed, regarding their response, "Should he treat our sister like a harlot?", Yaakov seemed to keep quiet, indicating that he agreed with them. The Ramban questions their justification in killing an entire community when, in effect, only one person actually had perpetrated the heinous crime against Dinah. "How did Yaakov's righteous sons spill innocent blood?" asks the Ramban. He responds accordingly, saying that the people of Shechem had transgressed so many cardinal sins, such as idol-worship and immorality, that their rap sheet was long overdue for collection.

Why, then, does Yaakov curse their anger and punish them not simply for one generation, but for many generations? What did they do that would warrant such a response? Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, derives from here a profound lesson in regard to middos, character traits, and their refinement. It is a given that character refinement is one of the foundations of avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty. One who pays no heed to his middos will eventually become a "pera adam," wild, uncouth person. A laxity in middos development will ostensibly impede one's spiritual growth and relationship with the Almighty. After all is said and done, however, a deficiency in middos is basically a secondary flaw. In other words, one who serves Hashem, who is meticulous in all areas of mitzvah observance, who is pure of sin, is not derelict in his service to the Almighty just because he is a kaason, angry person, or an atzlan, indolent. While it is true that these character flaws can be the precursor of many sins, as long as he does not actually sin, his conduct should be considered to be satisfactory. This is what might be the usual way of looking at a deficiency in middos. We, however, perceive an altogether different understanding from Yaakov's rebuke to his sons. Shimon and Levi did not sin. Yaakov agreed with this hypothesis. Yet, the fact that their anger was so intense that it resulted in such action cannot be either ignored nor absolved. A flawed character trait is cause for punishment. It is a catalyst for a curse that will affect generations to come. Levi was the chosen one of the twelve tribes. Yet, he was compelled to move from place to place in order to expunge the middah of anger from his character. Reuven did not sin with Bilhah. Chazal attest to this fact. Yet, he lost everything. Kehunah, Priesthood, and malchus, monarchy, were once his, but he lost them as a result of his impetuosity. Why? He did not sin. Why was he punished for generations to come? While it is true that his actions were not iniquitous, they were the result of a deficient character trait.

We do not judge middos only commensurate to the actions which result from them. Middos that are flawed are in their own right an evil for which one is held in contempt. Until one has succeeded in cleansing himself of a character flaw, he is in serious danger of acting in a manner unbecoming a Torah Jew. It is not the actions themselves that matter the most. Rather, it is the evil that precipitates them that is of much greater concern.

Questions and Answers

1) Why did Yaakov cross the river Yaakov with his family during the night?

2) Which one of Yaakov's children did not meet Eisav?

3) Why does the Torah not mention Rivkah's death?

4) Why did Yaakov bury Rochel on the road to Beis Lechem? Why did he not bury her in Beis Lechem proper?


1) He was attempting to flee from Eisav by taking an escape route under cover of darkness. This action was frowned upon by Hashem. He was, therefore, subjected to a confrontation with Eisav's guardian angel during the night. Moreover, because he attempted to flee Eisav with his feet, he was punished and wounded in the area that is associated with movement (Rashbam).

2) Dinah. Chazal say that Yaakov hid her in a box lest Eisav set eyes upon her. Chazal derive this from the fact that the Torah writes that Yaakov greeted Eisav with his eleven children. Yaakov had twelve children. This teaches us that Dinah was hidden. We know that it was Dinah since Chazal say that the Bais Hamikdash was built in Binyamin's portion because he was the only one who did not bow down to Eisav. If there had been another brother who was hidden, the Bais Hamikdash would have been built in his portion (Midrash, Gaon m'Vilna).

3) This was so that she not be cursed for giving birth to Eisav (Rashi). Alternatively, since Yaakov had not yet returned home, and Yitzchak - due to his impaired vision - was homebound the only family member attending Rivkah's funeral would have been Eisav. This would have been a great shame for Rivkah. Thus, she was buried quietly in middle of the night, not calling attention to her death and funeral. This is the reason that the Torah does not make mention of this occurrence (Ramban).

4) This was per Hashem's instructions so that hundreds of years later she could serve as solace for the Jews passing by her grave on the way to galus Bavel, the Babylonian exile (Rashi). Alternatively, she was buried on a site which is located in what became her son, Binyamin's portion of Eretz Yisrael (Ramban).

With gratitude to the Almighty
and in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of our son
Mitchell and Judy Spero & Family


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

The Seventh volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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