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Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn. When he perceived he could no long overcome him, he struck the socket of hip… Then (the man) said "Let me go, for dawn has broken". He said "I will not let you go until you have blessed me"… He said to him "Your name shall no longer be called 'Yaakov', but 'Yisrael', for you struggled… and were successful". The sun rose for him as he passed Peniel (32:25-8,31).
Who was the man who wrestled with the Patriarch? The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 77:3) brings the tradition that it was the guardian angel of Esau. The Ramban likewise links the man with Esau and sees the whole struggle in the context of maaseh avot siman le-banim - what happens to the Patriarchs portends for the future of their descendants. In this case the offspring of Jacob would suffer many gruesome outrages at the hands of the offspring of Esau, but every time they would eventually emerge as one nation again.
The Rashbam however, understands the text differently. Jacob was left alone: he was away from his extended family and his entourage of servants. If attached, there was no person to come to his aid. Should Esau appear, he would be on his own. Jacob's instinct was to run away, but G-d sent an angel to wrestle with him. From that struggle, Jacob learned an important lesson - how to face up to his fears, confront them, and then defeat them.
Up until then, the capacity to fight in the open was not fully developed in his life. He obtained the birthright by waiting for the right moment: when Esau returned home, tired out after hunting deer. He obtained the blessing by waiting for the right moment: his father's sight deteriorated and Esau's wives were a source of misery to his parents. He obtained his wealth with G-d at his side, allowing him to manipulate the natural process of cattle reproduction to work in his favor. And took advantages of Laban's absence to obey G-d's call to "return to the land of your birthplace, and I will be with you" (31:3).
This was the point where Jacob had to develop what was missing in his life; indeed his personality. It was the capacity to face a life-threatening situation face-to-face - with G-d's previous promise of "I will be with you" as his only support. There were no human supporters: they were all out of reach. And the force that wrestled with him could not be avoided by any form of deception.
Except by running away. Nobody would know. Except G-d. But Jacob chose to fight the enemy face-to-face, and not run away.
That explains the angel's telling Jacob: "You name is no longer Jacob, but Israel. For you have struggled with G-d and men, and you succeeded" (32:29).
Thus Jacob defeated his weakness of resorting to subterfuge when in a tight situation - even when nobody was watching. Except G-d. For Jacob fought openly, and the word Israel contains that concept.
This explains the meaning of Isaiah's description of the Messianic age: "G-d will be revered alone on that day" (Isaiah 2:11). Mankind will not serve G-d just when others are watching and be esteemed by others for doing so. Mankind will serve G-d even when only G-d is watching…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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