By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Battle & Survival
The battle between Yakov and the Angel of Eisav presents a number of
1. Why was Yakov alone the night that he encountered the Angel?
2. What were they fighting about?
3. Was the battle to prove something to Eisav, or to prove something to Yakov?
4. Of what consequence was the battle to Eisav himself?
5. Was the fight a real encounter or a prophetic vision?
6. If it was prophetic, was Yakov actually hurt in the battle?
7. If it was real, what does it mean for an angel to "hurt" Yakov?
8. In the end, why does Yakov demand a blessing, and why does the Angel
change Yakov's name?
9. How does the encounter with the Angel relate to Yakov's confrontation with
Pasuk 32:25 states that, "Yakov was left alone…". Rashi references the
Talmud in Chulin 91a that explains why Yakov was alone on the east bank of
the Jabbok River (an eastern tributary of the Jordan - Areyeh Kaplan).
"He had forgotten some small vessels and went to retrieve them."
Taking into account the preparations that Yakov had made in order to protect
his family from possible battle with Eisav, it seems foolish that Yakov
placed himself in danger by returning alone for some small vessels. In fact,
we could assume that Yakov was wealthy enough to ignore some small vessels
that had been left behind and could easily be replaced. What was so
important about those small vessels that Yakov was willing to put himself in
In order for us to accomplish our mission as the representatives of G-d upon
earth, we must be exceedingly careful how we present ourselves. Foremost in
the minds of the rest of the world will be our integrity. Are we honest in
business? Do we respect our associates and behave with concern for their
welfare? Is profit and wealth an end or the means? If they see us as
consistently honest, they will be willing to listen to our message of truth
One of the more subtle but profound indicators of honesty is how we treat our
own belongings. Someone who is careful about his own possessions shows that
he is aware of their value and purpose. He manifests a recognition that what
he has is from G-d for the purpose of better serving Him. Therefore, it
makes sense that such a person will equally value someone else's possessions.
However, someone who shows disrespect for his own belongings is obviously
not concerned for their value and purpose, and therefore may not respect the
autonomy and value of someone else's belongings.
Yakov, as the progenitor of the Bnai Yisroel, had to maintain the highest
standards of integrity. By recognizing G-d as the source of his wealth, and
valuing each of his possessions, Yakov fully accepted the inherent
limitations that G-d had established in His world. Just as species are
separate and unique from one another, so too are individuals and their
possessions separate and distinct from one another. Through our honesty and
integrity we actualize our belief in G-d as the Creator and Director of the
universe. Through our behavior we are teachers and role models.
Yakov returning alone for "some small vessels" showed the value he placed on
every one of his possessions as direct gifts from G-d. "If I have them it is
because G-d gave them to me. If G-d gave them to me they must be important to
my personal mission in this world. Therefore they are too valuable to simply
discard." However, were they important enough for Yakov to place himself in
danger? Possibly, the fact that Yakov put himself in danger in order to
retrieve the "small vessels" may not be so significant. We know that Yakov
was exceedingly strong and quite capable of defending himself. Therefore, he
may have felt that he was not in any unnecessary danger by returning alone to
retrieve the small vessels.
Yakov's fight with the Angel is easier to understand as a prophetic vision
rather than an actual physical encounter. First of all, all the commentaries
explain the battle as having been spiritual rather than physical. Secondly,
there is no compelling reason why we must explain the battle as physical.
In order to understand the battle let us look at its outcome. First of all,
Yakov's victory was that he had survived - not that he had beaten the Angel.
Secondly, the Angel changed Yakov's name to Yisroel because,
"…You have become the commanding power before G-d and men, since you have
The changing of a name heralds the defining moment in that person's life.
Changing Yakov's name to Yisroel accented his ability to remain "the
single-minded man living in tents" and yet survive the physical world of
Eisav and Lavan. The battle between Yakov and the Angel of Eisav was to
finalize the blessings of Yitzchak. Yitzchak had never intended to give
Eisav the blessings of spirituality and Torah. His intention was to bestow
upon Eisav blessings of materialism in the service of his brother Yakov.
Eisav's strong arm and commanding ability would have freed Yakov to devote
his strength and talents to understanding and teaching Torah. However,
Rivkah and Yakov forced Yitzchak into recognizing that Eisav could not be a
partner with Yakov. Eisav would never join Yakov in continuing the "blessings
Considering that it is impossible to properly serve G-d without taking care
of our physical needs; and considering that Eisav was not going to be Yakov's
partner; therefore, Yitzchak had to give both blessings to Yakov - the
blessing for material wealth as well as spiritual dominance. Yitzchak had no
problem blessing Eisav with physical prosperity and power, as he did. There
is more than enough material wealth to go around. However, there can be only
one truth, one Torah. That truth and Torah was Yakov's inheritance, not
Yakov's battle with the Angel of Eisav had little to do with Eisav himself.
The purpose of the battle was for Yakov and his children to realize that
Eisav was out the equation. From now on the Jews would have to do business
with the non-spiritual world without Eisav's help and support. Yet, they
would survive the influences and assimilative attempts of that world just as
Yakov survived his battle with Eisav's Angel. The Jew can do battle. He can
survive. The Jew can be the commanding spiritual power in this world. In
surviving the battle, the Angel of Eisav was forced to admit that the
blessings of Yitzchak were fully Yakov's.
Eisav's most insidious method for destroying us is to infiltrate our thinking
and suggest that our physical and spiritual survival depend upon integrating
Eisav's values into Judaism. He attempts to confuse and obscure the lines of
demarcation that separate us from him that were established through
Yitzchak's blessings and Yakov's battle. Yet, the name Yisroel tells us that
although we must have contact with Eisav, we can survive him and his
strategies. However, every encounter with Eisav hurts us. Yakov walked away
from the battle limping. Whether or not he actually limped, or if it was
part of the prophecy, does not really matter. The fact remains that G-d gave
us the mitzvah of Gid Hanashe, (not eating the sciatica) as a constant
reminder of the dangers we face and the injuries we must suffer when doing
battle with Eisav.
When the Angel changed Yakov's name, it was clear that Eisav would no longer
retain a claim on his birthright. From then on, Eisav became our nemesis. He
was no longer our brother. However, can not defeat Eisav, we can only
survive his attempts at destroying us.
The very next scene in the Torah confirmed Yakov's ability to be Yisroel and
survive Eisav. When Eisav and Yakov finally met, Eisav kissed Yakov. Eisav
did not confront his brother in anger and battle, instead he embraced him.
Eisav's greatest weapon and the Jew's gravest danger is his kiss. The Jew
has survived persecution and even a holocaust, but can he survive Eisav's
Eisav saw that Yakov was too strong - he was Yisroel! But what about the
children? Eisav knew that he could always infiltrate the thinking of the
children, his nephews and nieces, and undermine their sense of being apart,
separate, and holy! Therefore, he said to Yakov, "I will travel alongside
you". To which Yakov responded, "My Lord knows that the children are tender
and they depend upon me for their growth…"
Yakov understood Eisav's intention. Eisav wanted to destroy the Bnai Yisroel
by being their loving uncle who would protect and care for them. However,
Yakov effectively let Eisav know that he had seen through his strategy. In
the aftermath of the Angel's confirmation, Yisroel no longer needed to depend
upon Eisav. The Jew no longer needed Eisav. The Jews would survive. The Jews
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.