by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Yaakov remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of
Who was this man? Our Sages tell us: it was no man, but an angel. The
battle wasn't physical, but spiritual. And the angel represented the
spiritual force of Esav, Yaakov's brother.
From the very beginning, the two brothers were different. "The children
grew; and Esav became a skilled hunter, a man of the field, while Yaakov
was a simple man, a dweller in tents."[25:27] Esav became wound up in the
physical world, acquiring wealth, while Yaakov sat in tents, dwelling upon
spiritual matters. And even in the womb, the two were already at odds with
At the time of our story, many years have passed. Yaakov, the spiritual
brother, has already acquired the right of the first-born - the right to
lead the Service of G-d - and the blessings which were intended to
accompany that right. Yitzchak had agreed that the blessings belonged to
Yaakov, saying to Esav, "indeed, blessed shall he be." [27:33] Rashi
explains: "in order that you should not say 'had Yaakov not fooled his
father, he would never have taken the blessings,' Yitzchak agreed and
blessed Yaakov again, with full knowledge that he was doing so."
Yaakov's exile is coming to an end. He is returning to the land of Cana'an,
the land promised to his fathers - and to him. Only Yaakov, the spiritual
brother, was to carry forward the Jewish people... but Esav has never agreed.
Preparing to confront Esav himself, Yaakov does three things: he sends
gifts, he prays, and finally he prepares his camp for battle. But the
confrontation with Esav's spiritual force comes suddenly, and when it
happens, Yaakov must fight immediately. The real battle is not the physical
one, which is over before it begins; it is the spiritual wrestling between
Yaakov and the "spiritual force for the phyisical."
What is this angel, this self-contradiction, a "spiritual force for the
phyisical?" The Kli Yakar commentary tells us: it is the force which tries
to blind us to the spiritual. Yes, the physical can affect the
spiritual - by getting in the way.
If so, we confront another question: why did Yaakov, the spiritual son,
want Yitzchak's blessings for physical wealth? Why did Yitchak agree that
this was appropriate?
Because ideally, the physical should serve the spiritual. In Judaism, a
spiritual person is not he who separates himself from all humanity, sits on
a mountaintop and meditates. In Judaism, a spiritual person is he who takes
the physical, and elevates it. A spiritual person not only studies G-d's
word, the Torah, but also gives food to the poor, and money to support
Torah study. A spiritual person uses a house to have guests, a car to take
passengers, new shoes to visit the sick [the Internet to acquire Torah
Yitzchak says to Esav: "You shall live by your sword, and serve your
brother; but it shall be that when you shall dominate over him, you will
break his yoke from upon your neck." [27:40] The physical shall serve the
spiritual. Esav must serve Yaakov as long as Yaakov deserves his blessings
- as long as Yaakov uses the physical properly. But Rashi explains how Esav
might come to "dominate" - should Yaakov, the spiritual, descend and fail
to serve G-d, then he is failing to use the physical in accordance with
Yitzchak's blessings. At that point, Esav need not agree - he has grounds
to complain about the blessings which Yaakov took.
Yaakov has no choice. For him to succeed and go forward, he cannot permit
the physical world to blind him to his spiritual goals. He must fight the
angel head on.
Text Copyright © 1995 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.