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Parashat Vayishlach 5778 — 12/02/2017

Parashat Vayishlach 5778 — 12/02/2017

Bereishit 32:4-36:43

Ya’akov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (32:25)

Our Sages identify the “man” as the “angel of Esav,” the heavenly minister who oversees the affairs of Esav and his extended family (later identified as Rome in the Rabbinic literature). Since the Jewish people were exiled by the Romans and have mostly lived in the Western world, it appears that our wrestling match is a foretaste of what was to come. Abarbanel points out that the angel was able to injure Ya’akov, but not overcome him. Similarly, the nations of the world have been able to inflict terrible injury on the Jewish people, both physical and psychological, but have never been able to destroy us completely. But what, exactly, was the nature of the encounter between the “man” and Ya’akov. The question echoes a question that we ran into in parashat Vayera – how can a spiritual being (the angel(s)) interact with a material being (Ya’akov/Avraham)? Is the story to be taken literally? Was it a figment of someone’s imagination?

Rambam insists that the entire prophecy / encounter was nothing more than a dream – a dream with a great deal of truth embedded in it perhaps, but not something that could have actually taken place. Abarbanel asks, if it were just a dream, how could Ya’akov have come away limping on one leg? After all, the dream state of consciousness and the waking state apparently have nothing to do with one another. As a wise man once put it, “the gun of waking state is useless against the tiger of dream state.” Rather, Abarbanel returns to the explanation that he used to explain the visit to Avraham of the “three men” who actually “ate” – “Miraculously, Gd brought about a complete sensory experience, including a physical injury, while he [Ya’akov] was fully awake.”

If this seems a bit like a deus ex machina explanation, I suppose it is. It’s a bit like saying that Gd created the universe to look exactly like it was 14 billion years old, just to send a message, or to test our faith. Nevertheless, perhaps it can give us an insight into the mechanics by which Gd communicates with humans, and the way humans come to know about the spiritual realms.

Our tradition tells us that there is, deep beneath the surface level of creation, a field of pure Being, pure abstraction. This field, like the fields of physics, can vibrate in different ways to give rise to different forms and phenomena. Pure Being, Pure Existence, rises in waves of expression, and each mode of vibration is a different basic type of expression of Being. On the surface, we have an extremely complex pattern of vibrations with many different frequencies. At the depth, the fundamental frequencies are more prominent. These deeper levels are levels of greater abstraction and greater power, simply because they preserve the ability to combine in many different configurations to give rise to the variety of forms on the surface.

While it is not obviously the case, our Sages tell us that these primordial vibrations at the subtlest level of expression of pure being can be expressed as the sounds of human speech. Specifically, the phonetics, the grammar and the semantics of the Hebrew language are actually expressions of the deepest levels of the laws of nature. Because of this correspondence, the subtlest vibrations of Pure Being can actually be heard and expressed. The Torah, in particular, is called “the blueprint of creation,” because it is held to be the specific sequence of expressions that exactly map to the first sprouting of creation out of the transcendental Pure Being. I think this may be the significance of the statement “Ya’akov was left alone…” In the Transcendent, prior to creation, we are alone in our Self. From that level alone are we able to cognize the laws of nature, the impulses of intelligence, as they begin to rise from the silence of the Transcendent.

Now, leave aside the fact that the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu some centuries after the event, and just consider what might have been going on with Ya’akov Avinu. I think it’s very possible that Ya’akov’s perception was so refined that he was able to perceive, or cognize, on that very subtlest level, what exactly were the different laws of nature and their interactions and permutations and combinations that were producing his situation. It was realized as a wrestling match, because these forces were apparently pulling in different directions, and Ya’akov’s challenge was to grasp them all and harmonize them and channel them in a productive direction. The fact that he came away with a physical limp simply means that his cognition manifested itself all the way up to the physical level, as indeed it has done repeatedly throughout Jewish history.

And what we can learn from the incident, and from subsequent Jewish history, is that there is an ongoing tension between the downward urge (the “evil inclination”) for sensual pleasures, personified as Esav, and the upward urge of the soul to seek higher levels of spirituality (“good inclination”), personified by Ya’akov. Eventually, the spirituality of Ya’akov overcomes the crude, material nature of Esav, and the “older shall serve the younger.” Our job is to hasten that day by establishing ourselves in the Transcendent and creating the ideal society that the Torah envisages.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayishlach

Wrestle, Overcome, Prevail, Embrace
This parshah has the famous event in which a man, who is an angel, struggles with Jacob and Jacob prevails and is given a change of name from Jacob to Israel.

One translation of “Israel (Yisrael)” is: one who has prevailed in a struggle with men and with Gd.  Why would Gd send an angel to struggle with Jacob? Why would He send one to struggle with us?  And how could Jacob and could we prevail in such a struggle?

Let’s look at the event in order to get an answer:

When Jacob, out of fear of his brother Esau, separates himself from the rest of his family, servants and passions, during the night, a man wrestles with him but Jacob prevails. When the man, who is an angel sent by Gd (according to the Rashbam), asks to be released, Jacob says “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”  The angel says that he will no longer be called Jacob but Israel “for thou hast striven with Gd and with men and thou hast prevailed.”

Why did Gd send an angel to wrestle with Jacob? According to the Rashbam, He did so in order to keep Jacob from fleeing out of fear of his brother: the wrestling was from love not competition.

Genesis Rabbah says that the angel was Esau’s guardian angel, contesting in Esau’s behalf for the blessings that Isaac gave Jacob, thinking (perhaps) that he was Esau.

Either way, angels do not act on their own behalf: they are messengers of Gd, doing Gd’s will. It’s therefore plausible to say that Gd was leaving the matter of the blessing open and Jacob was able to draw more upon Gd within him. Jacob wrestled with men and with Gd and prevailed.

Only Gd can prevail in a contest with Gd. Thus, Jacob’s consciousness was raised to the level that Gd functioned through him more than through the angel and the wrestling became finally not mere wrestling but an embrace.

When one overcomes an angel of Gd in a wrestling match, the battle is transformed into an embrace: winning a fight with Gd means passing a test Gd gives us so we can grow in our ability to Love Gd with all our heart, all our soul, all our might and also love thy neighbor as thyself.  Jacob was raised to the level where he loved his brother Esau, bowed to him, and in Jacob’s presence, Esau was also raised to this level.

One lesson we can draw from this event is that when we behave righteously, Gd opens our awareness so the struggles of daily life are transformed into embraces, our fears transformed to confidence and love.

I feel we are doing well and making good progress in embracing life and Life, and transforming our struggles into embraces and blessings.

Baruch HaShem