Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Battle of the Yabbok: The War Against Error-ism
One of the most intriguing and esoteric sections of this week's parsha
occurs when Yaakov, having guided his family and possessions
across the Yabbok River, goes back to retrieve some small jars he left
on the other side. There, he encounters a "man," who was actually a
malach (an angel), and struggles with him until sunrise. After
emerging victorious from their fight, Yaakov asks the angel for a
blessing. Eventually, the angel acquiesces, "And he blessed him
What type of "man" did this angel appear as? The Gemara (Chullin
91a) quotes a dispute:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini says he appeared to
Yaakov as a pagan worshipper. Rabba bar Ulla says he
appeared to Yaakov as a talmid chacham (Torah
Generally, regarding such a dispute, we invoke the rule that, "Eilu
ve'eilu divrei Elokim Chaim - both opinions contain an element of
truth and G-dliness;" the angel's appearance was both that of a
talmid chacham and an idol worshipper (quite a combination!).
Who indeed was this malach who had come to do battle with
Yaakov? Rashi quotes Chazal (our Sages) who identify him as "Saro
shel Eisav - the ministering angel of Eisav. (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3;
Midrash Tanchuma 8)" The struggle, commentators explain, was not
a simple wrestling match. (After all, how often does one ask his
assailant for a blessing after an attempted mugging?!) Eisav is the
antithesis of everything holy and ethical. His ministering angel, thus,
represents the forces of evil that do battle with the Yaakov's of the
world, attempting to draw the righteous from the just path, and entice
them to forsake their spiritual assets in favour of material trappings
Sometimes, says the Avnei Nezer, the yetzer hara approaches us in
the guise of a pagan worshipper. There are times when we are
overcome by the urge to sin, knowing full well what we're doing is
wrong. It is a battle of brute force - the struggle of brawn against
brain: Do we allow our emotions and desires to overcome our morals
and ethics, or can our principles overcome the animal forces that lie
hidden deep within our psyche? There are no airs and no pretences;
the objective is clear, and the lines have been drawn. If we succeed
in overcoming our desires, it is clear that a battle has been won. If we
fail, there is no consolation.
Much of the time, however, the distinction between good and bad is
far from clear. This is when the yetzer hara appears as a talmid
chacham. During these battles, we're not being drawn to sin in the
conventional sense; sin itself appears in the guise of a mitzvah! This
latter type of struggle is difficult to conceptualize, and far harder to
overcome. By definition it defies definition; it truly does seem to be
a mitzvah, and it takes a tremendous amount of circumspection to
even entertain the thought that what we have perceived as a mitzvah
may in fact be sin incognito.
Let us say, for example, that one enjoys one's learning so much that
he allows his Torah study to encroach on his tefilah (prayer). He
diligently squeezes another few minutes out of his learning; going
over one last Rashi, or reviewing one last Mishnah. He then quickly
dons tefillin, and rushes to catch up with the tzibbur (congregation).
Mitzvah or aveirah? What about when we consistently overlook the
shortcomings of our children, out of a desire to show them how
much we love them? Mitzvah or aveirah? (What about reading this
d'var Torah when we should be davening or listening to kaddish or
chazaras ha-shatz (oops!)? Mitzvah or aveirah?)
These pithy examples do not even begin to do the topic justice. In
this cosmic masquerade party, the guises are many and diverse, and
only the wisest and most circumspect stand even a chance at
detecting the character that lurks beneath the mask. It is a chilling
Yaakov asks that the angel bless him, and, after some last minute
negotiations and haggling, he acquiesces. Rashi quotes a most
interesting Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 78:2):
In the end, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will reveal
Himself to you in Beth-el. He will change your name,
and He will bless you there. I too will be there, and I
shall concede to you there with regard to them (the
blessings and the name-change).
Regarding this, it is written (Hosea 12:5), "He ruled over
an angel, and triumphed. He cried, and entreated him" -
that is, the angel cried, and appealed to Yaakov. What
did he ask of him? (The verse continues:) "Beth-el He
(Hashem) will find him (Yaakov), and there He will speak
with us" - that is, he said, "Give me time until He will
address us there (in Beth-el; don't insist that I bless you
here)." But Yaakov did not want to wait, and against the
angel's will, he conceded to him regarding the blessings
there, as it is written, "And he blessed him there."
How are we to understand the give-and-take between Yaakov and the
angel? Why was the angel reluctant to accede to the blessings now,
seeking to push things off, while Yaakov insisted on receiving his
consent then and there?
The malach, says the Belzer Rebbe R' Yissocher Dov zt"l, admitted
that, when living in Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov deserved this-worldly
blessings. But now they stood on the banks of the Yabbok river,
outside of Israel. To concede to the blessings now would be to say
that even when in exile, Yaakov would hold the key to physical
prosperity. Yaakov was adamant - the angel must bless him here.
Perhaps, Yaakov prophetically foresaw the millennia his offspring
would spend traversing the globe, wandering from country to country
and from continent to continent, yet never forsaking their heritage.
Much of Jewish history has been played out in exile - to restrict
Yaakov's blessing to Beth-el simply would not do.
In the end, the angel had no choice - he was forced to concede.
While our sojourn in galus (exile) has been long and bitter, Jews have
prospered and thrived wherever destiny has found them, perhaps in
no small measure due to the foresight of Yaakov on that fateful night.
May Hashem fortify us with the resolve and strength of Yaakov to
continue our struggle to remain G-d fearing Jews. And may He
continue to bless us with the blessings of physical sustenance and
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by the
Kuhnreich family, in memory of R' Moshe ben R'
Text Copyright © 2001 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.