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March 23, 2006

Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel
By Rebecca Tenenbein

This d’var Torah is written in loving memory of my grandparents

Edith Tenenbein, Alexander Tenenbein, and Abe Newborn, z”l

Jacob must go back to his homeland, Canaan, but first he must settle
accounts with his brother, Esau. Twenty years have passed since Jacob
ran away with the fear that his brother might kill him. Twenty years
have changed them both greatly. The night before the meeting between
the two brothers, ‘Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him
until the break of dawn.’ (Genesis 32:35). When morning comes, Jacob
has a new name, Israel.

Who did Jacob actually wrestle with? Who was this man? Many rabbis
and great thinkers have spent time interpreting this passage. The
commentator Rashi suggests that it was Esau’s angel. Jacob was worried
about his upcoming meeting with Esau. Rashi adds that when Jacob
realized that he was wrestling with Esau’s angel, he saw that he could
possibly persuade Esau to forgive him. Jacob continues to fight until
he has a hold over the angel, and the angel begs Jacob to let him go.

Other commentators agree that the struggle between Jacob and the
angel takes place inside of Jacob’s mind. Jacob cannot meet his brother
without wrestling with the guilt of stealing Esau’s birthright. He must
repent and admit that Esau had been cheated. Only after he becomes
Israel was he ready to face his brother.

Rabbi Israel Salantar (z”l) and his disciple Rav Yitzchak Blazer of the Mussar movement discuss the principle of yir’at shamayim,
fear of God. In the ‘Ten innovations’ he writes, ‘Man is caught in a
great thicket of troubles and worries, and new trials spring up to face
him every morning.’ (122 Ohr Yisrael) He further explains that everyone
is given behirah, free will. If we apply this principle to this story, we see that Jacob’s struggle with the angel shows that he had yir’at shamayim.
Before he is ready to make peace with his brother, Esau, he must ask
God for his help and for his blessing. He fights with the angel and
comes into contact with God and receives God’s blessing. Rabbi Salanter
stresses that each one of us has the responsibility to act in
appropriate ways and to use Torah to raise our self-consciousness. In a
sense, Jacob was doing this.

Another concept of Mussar is that every action that we take has an
impact. We must recognize that we are human beings and we are by no
means perfect. It is important to work on our character rectification.
If we look at Jacob, we know that he fears his meeting with Esau, since
he has cheated his brother out of the birthright. Jacob realizes that
he must make amends with his brother as a means of coming closer to God
and thereby changing his name to Israel.

What did this struggle accomplish? It tested Jacob’s physical and
spiritual strength. Jacob succeeds in this test and proves that his
strength will not fail him in the future. Furthermore, his name is
changed to Israel, one who wrestles with God. What was the importance
of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel? This incident was a test of Jacob’s
endurance. Just as God was testing Abraham, so too was he testing Jacob
and his strength to preserve the people of Israel. I would think that
Jacob would be tired after his struggle with this angel. But this was a
prophecy that Israel would never be defeated. The angel could have
crushed Jacob in the first minutes of the struggle, but God did not
permit Jacob to be tested beyond his abilities.

Personally, this parashah reminds me of the daily rewards and
struggles that I face as I prepare to serve the Jewish community as a
cantor. I feel that I can identify with Jacob at times. One part of me
is full of fear and doubts and is constantly struggling with new
challenges and expectations. Another part of me is strong and fearless,
as I am confident in my abilities to serve the Jewish community and
remain steadfast in my desire to do so. Just like Jacob wrestled with
the angel and maybe even with himself, I too wrestle with my fears and
doubts. I know that I will go through changes over the next few years,
just as Jacob did. Not only will my name change to Cantor Tenenbein,
but I will also be personally changed by my experiences at school, at
home, and in the professional arena. I will remember Jacob and his
stuggle with the angel.

Rav Nachman of Bratslav says, ‘The whole world is nothing but a
narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.’ I find
that his words relate to my life as a cantor and specifically to this parashah.
I know that some of the bridges may be narrow but they are indeed
bridges to move across and to give me support. I will keep walking
across these bridges, letting my life take its course, and above all,
never be afraid. There are many challenges that I will struggle with,
just as Jacob did with the angel. However, I will emerge from these
struggles as a strong leader of Klal Yisrael. My name will be changed as well. I will continue to walk in the ways of Torah just as Jacob did.