“The Encounter”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we read of the dramatic encounter between Jacob and Esau.

Uncertain whether Esau is coming toward him as an act of brotherly love or to make war, a fearful Jacob prepares himself for all eventualities, sending gifts, praying and preparing to do battle. In addition, he separates his camp in half, saying (Genesis 32:9): “Im yah’voh Ey’sav el ha’ma’chah’neh hah’ah’chat v’hee’ka’hoo, v’ha’yah ha’ma’cha’neh ha’nish’ar lif’lay’tah,” If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camps shall survive.

After sending a substantial tribute to Esau, Jacob goes to rest in the camp. Arising at night, Jacob takes his two wives, two handmaids, and eleven sons, followed by his possessions, and crosses the Jabbok river.

Scripture then tells of the “encounter,” (Genesis 32:25): “Va’yee’vah’tayr Yaakov l’vah’do,” and Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And when the man perceived that he could not overcome Jacob, he struck the socket of Jacob’s hip, so that Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

The man then said, “Let me go, for dawn has broken.” To which Jacob responded, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The man then asked Jacob for his name, and he replied, “Jacob.” At that point the man said, “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with G-d and with man and have prevailed.” Jacob then asks the man for his name. Apparently unwilling to answer, the man simply asks, “Why do you inquire of my name?”

After the man blesses Jacob, Jacob names the location P’nee’el, saying, “For I have seen the Divine face to face, yet my life was spared.” The sun rises, and Jacob is found limping on his hip.

The encounter is indeed strange. In our studies in previous years, we have interpreted this encounter as a symbol of the struggle between Jacob and his inner self. Most of the classical commentaries, however, maintain that it is an encounter between Jacob and the representative of Esau. The commentators maintain that the encounter is a metaphor representing a Divinely decreed struggle that will perforce take place between the Jewish people and the descendants of Esau, until the end of days. Our rabbis in the Talmud say that the man that Jacob encounters is the guardian angel of Esau who symbolizes imperial Rome, which of course was, in those times, the temporal power that ruled the lands in which many Jews dwelt. “Rome,” (pagan or secular values), will always try to defeat the Jews, but somehow the Jews prevail.

The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Rabbi of Pressburg and leader of Hungarian Jewry) finds particular meaning in the words of verse 25: “Va’yay’ah’vayk eesh ee’mo“–and the man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. The Chatam Sofer points out that there are two possible meanings to the word “va’yay’ah’vayk.” It may come from the root of the Hebrew word ah’vak–dust, meaning that Jacob and Esau raised dust together in the battle. Alternatively, it could stem from the word l’cha’bayk–to hug, meaning that “he [the representative of Esau] hugged him [Jacob] with his arms.” The Chatam Sofer brilliantly notes that there are two ways that Esau tries to lord over the children of Israel in the course of history. At times, he wrestles and battles physically with the Jews, threatening to destroy them, making false accusations such as blood libels, and inciting pogroms. At other times, Esau embraces the Jews with outstretched arms, wishing to destroy them with kindness and assimilation.

The rabbis in the Talmud, Chulin 91a, offer a perplexing description of the guardian angel of Esau, saying that he appeared either like an idolater or like a Torah scholar.

Sometimes the evil that befalls the Jewish people arrives in the form of a idolator– a person of no morality or ethics. Despite the unadulterated evil nature of the worshiper of idols, the Jewish people, at times, embrace the “idolator,” committing evil for evil’s sake. At other times, the guardian angel of Esau takes the form of a Torah scholar, where, in the name of G-d, interpretations are pronounced that are fundamental distortions of Torah. Thus, we oftentimes find that incorrect and misleading halachic positions are declared with full faith that what is said is faithful to the word of G-d.

And so, the encounter of Jacob and Esau represents a perpetual challenge for the Jew. Parashat Vayishlach implores the Jewish people to serve as loyal members of “Am Yisrael.” This means that all Jews must be prepared to wrestle and do battle with man and with G-d, with our evil inclination and with what appears to be our G-dly inclinations, our Torah, which may also be misused to pervert the Divine message.

It is a difficult challenge, because it is often not at all easy to identify which is true Torah, and which is the “idolater.” May G-d give us the insight to distinguish between the truth and deception.

May you be blessed.