Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

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Yaakov's Battle with the Stranger

Yaakov's Battle with the Stranger - Week One

This week we began to look at the story of Yaakov's battle with a mysterious stranger, en route to meeting Esav.
To set the stage:

Yaakov fled to the house of Lavan, his uncle, after Esav threatened his life. On returning from Lavan's house, with four wives and eleven children, Yaakov received word that Esav was on a collision course, and that he had an army of four hundred men with him.

Yaakov feared the worst - that there would be a war with Esav. Yaakov prepared in three ways:
A. He prepared for war, by planning to split his camp into two groups, one of which would survive if the other were to be defeated in war
B. He prayed to Gd
C. He prepared a gift to send to Esav

We now enter the story of Yaakov's struggle with a mysterious stranger. As we have done in tackling other biblical events, we began with look at the verses themselves, to see what we could learn from the words. It would help to have a Chumash in front of you for this segment. We looked at Bereishis (Genesis) 32:22-33:

VaYikach Eis… - And he took his two wives, and two maids, and eleven sons, and passed over the crossing of Yabok
The use of the term "maids" for Bilhah and Zilpah here is interesting - they should have been full-fledged wives!
In any case, Yaakov now seems to be on the same side of Yabok as his family.

Vayikachem, vaYaavirem Es haNachal - And he took them, and he sent them over the stream
Yaakov makes them - his family, presumably - pass over the stream

Vayaaver Es Asher Lo - And he sent his property over
So now which side of the river is Yaakov on? It would seem that he is on the first side, and everyone else is on the second side. We must conclude that the crossing of Yabok is different from the "stream" we refer to here, so that everyone passed the first crossing, and Yaakov was between the crossing and the stream.

VaYivaser Yaakov Levado - And Yaakov remained alone
Why was Yaakov alone? A man with Yaakov's wealth, and with eleven sons, needs to stand alone? Couldn't he find a servant to go with him? (It is interesting to note that when Yosef sent his brothers to return to Yaakov and tell them he was alive, he made sure they would only travel during the daytime.)

During the class, some suggested that "alone" here might have other meanings. Among the suggestions were the ideas that "Levado - Alone" meant his family was not there, or in some sense there was a sudden distance between Yaakov and HaShem. We will have to investigate this further, as we learn the topic on a deeper level.

Vayeiavek Ish Imo - A man battled with him
"Vayeiavek" is an odd word to use for struggling, fighting. The word seems to come from the root, "Avak," or "dust." They raised the dust in battle.

Who was this "Ish," though? Was it just a human being? Some stranger, or highwayman, picking a fight with Yaakov? Or was this something more?
Rahmat pointed out that when we learned about the Sale of Yosef, we saw that there was an "Ish" who appeared to Yosef and told him where to find his brothers - and Rashi understood that "Ish" to be the angel, Gavriel.

VaYar Ki Lo Yachol Lo, vaYiga beKaf Yereicho - And he [the Ish] saw that he could not defeat him [Yaakov], and he touched Yaakov's thigh

What is special about the thigh? We pointed out two levels of symbolism:
1. When Avraham sends Eliezer to get a wife for Yitzchak, he makes him swear with his hand on Avraham's thigh. That is interpreted as an oath on Avraham's Mitzvah of circumcision. Could this contact be relevant to the circumcision, which marks the descendants of Avraham?
2. The Torah's term for descendants is "Yotzei Yerech," "those who emerged from the thigh." Is this stranger touching the descendants of Yaakov?

VaTeika Kaf Yerech Yaakov beHeiAvko Imo - Yaakov's thigh became dislocated, during the battle
It seems as though the touch caused Yaakov's thigh to be dislocated some time later, while battling. What kind of being can touch a joint, and cause it to be dislocated?
Donna pointed out that if we take the thigh to be a hint at Yaakov's descendants, this could refer to the exiles which the Jewish people have endured.
The story gets stranger…

VaYomer Shalcheini, ki Alah haShachar - He said, Send me away, for the dawn has risen
It sounds as though Yaakov now has the upper hand, despite his injury. But why does this stranger need to go at dawn? Is Yaakov fighting with a vampire?

Lo Ashaleichacha Ki Im Beirachtani - I will not send you, unless you bless me
Who asks an anonymous grappler for a blessing??

VaYomer Lo Mah Shimecha - And the stranger said: What is your name?
Was the stranger really asking for Yaakov's name? Did he know who Yaakov was, or not? If he didn't, why was he fighting with Yaakov? If he was just a highwayman, why was Yaakov asking him for a blessing?

Ki Sarisa Im Elo-him - For you have battled with Elo-him
What is this supposed to mean? Is the stranger an angel? Note the use of the specific name, "Elo-him," which is sometimes a reference to justice.
Note also that when we studied the story of the Golden Calf, we saw that "Elo-him" is not always a reference to Gd. It may also be a reference to a powerful being.

Note that HaShem would change Yaakov's name again, in 35:10.

VaYomer Hagidah Na Shimecha - And Yaakov said: Tell me your name
What does Yaakov know, or not know, about this aggressor?

VaYomer Lamah Zeh Tishal liShmi - And the stranger responded, Why are you asking my name?
Why did the stranger feel it was all right for him to ask Yaakov's name, but not the reverse?

VaYivarech Oso Sham - And the stranger blessed him there
Is this a new blessing? An extension of the first blessing?

Vayizrach Lo haShemesh - And the sun shone for Yaakov
The sun shines for everyone - why was it specific to Yaakov? Is Yaakov more central to the world's functioning, now that he has endured this battle?

Al Kein Lo Yochlu… - Therefore, the Jewish people do not eat the sciatic nerve…for he touched the thigh of Yaakov, the sciatic nerve
Clearly, this battle is meant to have historic significance for the Jewish people. But what?

To sum up and organize our questions, then:
1. Why was Yaakov alone?
2. Who was the "man" with whom Yaakov fought?
3. What is going on, with this blessing which Yaakov asks for and receives?

Have a good week,
Mordechai Torczyner


Yaakov's Battle with the Stranger - Week Two


To state the three questions which we brought up last week, in summarized form:

1. Why was Yaakov alone?
2. Who was this stranger, and why was he battling with Yaakov?
3. What is the meaning of the blessing which the stranger gives Yaakov, after the battle?

Our overall approach, for this topic, will be to look at Ibn Ezra first, and try to follow the development of his "Peshat" approach, and then to look at Rashi for a Midrashic approach. We will, hopefully, supplement with some lines from the Ramban at the end, to round out the picture.

This week we began to look at Ibn Ezra's understanding of Yaakov's battle with the mysterious stranger.

was Yaakov alone?

Ibn Ezra does not see anything sinister in Yaakov's having been left alone. According to Ibn Ezra, one should read the verses (Bereishis 32:23-25) simply:

Yaakov passed over the crossing himself. Yaakov then brought his family across, and then brought his property across. On Yaakov's last trip, he was waylaid by this stranger.

It is interesting to note that Rashbam places much more significance on Yaakov standing alone. Rashbam states that one of the reasons we commemorate this fight by not eating the sciatic nerve, is to remember the consequences of leaving someone alone.

What was Yaakov's battle about?
Ibn Ezra has little to say about this on this site, but he does make a cryptic comment on Bereishis 32:33:
"To know that this angel who appeared to Yaakov was actually physical, will be clarified to you if HaShem will open your heart in the section, 'For My Name is in the middle of him.'"

Ibn Ezra is referring to a Torah passage which follows the incident with the Golden Calf. HaShem told Moshe that He would send an angel to lead the Jewish people, and that they should be careful not to rebel against him, for he would not be tolerant; "My Name is in the middle of him (Shemos 23:21)."

In discussing that passage, Ibn Ezra makes a series of comments. First, he notes that an angel does exactly what HaShem commands, no more and no less. He then continues to say, "The usage, 'in the middle of him,' is similar to a circle, in which the locus is equidistant from all points. This is similar to HaShem's Glory in the desert encampments."

Ibn Ezra is bothered by the phrase, "in the middle of him." Where is HaShem's Name "located?" In the middle of some form? Ibn Ezra explains that the term is not meant to indicate physical location - it is meant to indicate that HaShem is equally close to the angel, and to everything else. The Jews should not make the mistake of thinking that HaShem is sending an agent, and is now taking His hand away. "I am with him," HaShem says, "and I know what is going on."

Ibn Ezra's philosophy regarding angels seems to be that an angel is a being given animation and strength by HaShem directly, and that an angel is given that "life" to carry out a task.

To take this back to Yaakov's struggle, the Ibn Ezra was trying to say (in 32:33, cited above) that Yaakov did battle with a physical entity, animated by HaShem for this purpose.

What was the purpose, though?
Ibn Ezra explains that in Bereishis 33:10, when Yaakov meets Esav, and says to him, "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of Elo-him." Ibn Ezra comments that the great commentators explained the incident with the angel as an attempt by HaShem to encourage the fearful Yaakov. Yaakov was afraid that Esav would fight him, and possibly defeat him. HaShem set up this battle to show that there could be a struggle, but that Yaakov would prevail in the end.

Rafi pointed out that this idea is buttressed by the verse in which the angel blesses Yaakov (Bereishis 32:29)- "For you battled with Elo-him and with people, and you have been victorious." The angel is highlighting Yaakov's ability to prevail.

Next week, I hope, we will complete a look at Ibn Ezra's understanding of the blessing which the angel gave to Yaakov.

Have a good week, and a Gemar Chasimah Tovah,
Mordechai Torczyner

Yaakov and the Stranger - Week Three


This week's e-mail is actually being written ahead of time, so that I won't end up writing it on Chol haMoed.

This week's class focusses on more of the Ibn Ezra's view of Yaakov's battle with the stranger, and on some of Rashi's view.

The Angel's Blessing
Last week, we explained that the Ibn Ezra views Yaakov's sparring partner as a "physical being animated by HaShem."
This idea is expressed in the blessing which the angel gives to Yaakov, as the angel identifies himself as "Elo-him."

Ibn Ezra makes a point of saying that the blessing should be translated thus (Bereishis 32:29):
"For you have become great with Gd and with man, and you have prevailed." Ibn Ezra translates the term, "Sarisa," not as "You have battled," but as "You have become great." This also comes out in the name, "Yisrael," "You have become great with Gd."

Yaakov's Conversation with the Angel
"Peshat" has its limits in understanding Torah, and here the Ibn Ezra comes to one of those limits. There are times when Ibn Ezra cites Midrash, if only to say that it is "not Peshat." There are other times when Ibn Ezra hints at a secret layer of interpretation. On some occasions, though, Ibn Ezra simply refuses to comment, and this is one of those. Ibn Ezra says nothing - here or anywhere I am able to find - regarding Yaakov's request for the angel's name.

It seems that this conversation cannot be understood on a literal level.

The Sun Shone for Yaakov
In Bereishis 32:32, we are told that "The sun shone for him (Yaakov) as he passed Penuel." Ibn Ezra makes a point of saying that nothing should be read into the words, "shone for him," on a Peshat level.

Ibn Ezra feels a need to say this because the Midrash approach will take advantage of the somewhat odd turn of phrase, as we will see in Rashi's commentary.

Ibn Ezra came to his understanding by employing three major interpretive methods which are part of the Peshat approach:

1. Simple words: Reading the simple words, as much as is possible, indicates to Ibn Ezra why Yaakov was alone, and why the passage said that the sun shone "for" Yaakov.
2. Key words: Yaakov's sparring partner was obviously not a normal man, and Ibn Ezra had laid down the foundation elsewhere to say that "Ish" does not necessarily translate as "human being." The battler is an agent of Gd, an angel.
3. Context: Ibn Ezra interprets the angel's purpose based on the preceding verses, about Yaakov's fear of Esav, and based on the blessing which Yaakov received from the angel.
We then come to Rashi's "Derash" analytic approach, and approach the same three questions we posed for Ibn Ezra:

1. Why was Yaakov alone?
2. Who was this stranger, and why was he battling with Yaakov?
3. What is the meaning of the blessing which the stranger gives Yaakov, after the battle?

Why was Yaakov alone?
Our first question was why Yaakov was left alone. Ibn Ezra dealt with this question by saying that Yaakov went back across the river to see whether anything had been left behind.

Rashi says that Yaakov acted as a bridge in bringing the family and property over, going back and forth. On the last trip, Yaakov went back for "Pachim Ketanim," "small vials," and was alone when he encountered the stranger.

Rashi has two apparent reasons for saying this:
1. The verse goes directly from "Yaakov passed his property over (32:24)," to "Yaakov remained alone (32:25)." It is logical to assume that Yaakov was engaged in bringing property over, when he encountered the angel.
2. Rashi is bothered by the fact that Yaakov was alone. He concludes that Yaakov must have been transporting some small entity, and this was what warranted his travel alone. (Ibn Ezra solves the same problem when he says Yaakov was looking to see whether anything was left.)

Who was the being with whom Yaakov fought?
Rashi, like Ibn Ezra, concludes that Yaakov fought with an angel. Rashi adds a twist, though, which we will have to go into a bit more next week. Rashi says that this being was "The Sar [Officer] of Esav." Rashi is referring to the idea that each nation has a representative angel.

Rashi has a couple of reasons for linking this angel to Esav:
1. Context. The battle with the angel is right in the middle of Yaakov's encounter with Esav.
2. The Angel's Blessing. The last words Esav had for Yaakov (Bereishis 27:36) were, "It is appropriate that he is called Yaakov, for he tricked me twice! He acquired my right of the first-born, and now he has acquired my blessing!" The angel says (32:29), "Your name will no longer be called Yaakov; Yisrael will be your name..." Rashi, as we will see, Gd-willing, next week, uses this in his understanding of the angel's blessing.
This parallel strongly lends itself to the idea that this angel is linked to Esav.

Gd-willing, we will see more of Rashi's view, and more on the idea of angels representing nations, next week.

Have a good Moed/week,
Mordechai Torczyner

Yaakov and the Stranger - Week Four


This week, we dealt with more of Rashi's understanding of the interaction between Yaakov and the Angel. Specifically, we dealt with the question of the Angel's role, the broader idea of an Angel representing a nation, and the purpose of the Angel's blessing for Yaakov.

The Angel's Identity
We began with the point in which we left off last week - Rashi's statement that this Angel was the representative of Esav. To quote our comments from last week:

Rashi has a couple of reasons for linking this angel to Esav:
1. Context. The battle with the angel is right in the middle of Yaakov's encounter with Esav.
2. The Angel's Blessing. The last words Esav had for Yaakov (Bereishis 27:36) were, "It is appropriate that he is called Yaakov, for he tricked me twice! He acquired my right of the first-born, and now he has acquired my blessing!" The angel says (32:29), "Your name will no longer be called Yaakov; Yisrael will be your name..." Rashi, as we will see, Gd-willing, next week, uses this in his understanding of the angel's blessing.
This parallel strongly lends itself to the idea that this angel is linked to Esav.

The issue of Context is of primary importance, and should not be underestimated. Rashi holds that the Torah shifts events out of their chronological places, in order to fit the context. In other words, if an event happens at a certain time within the Torah's narrative, but it doesn't match the context of the Torah's discussion, then the event is moved into a more appropriate context. In Hebrew, this is termed, "Ein Mukdam Ume'uchar baTorah" - "There is no 'former' or 'later' in the Torah."

If the battle between Yaakov and the Angel hadn't been relevant to the fight between Yaakov and Esav, it would not have been placed in the middle of this story. Thus, the Angel must be related to Esav.

A Nation's "Guardian Angel"
What is this concept of a nation's Representative Angel?

We have a few clues on this point:
1. Succah 29a mentions that when a nation is hurt, its representative angel is also hurt.
2. Rashi Succah 29a defines a "Representative Angel" as a being who is an Intercessor on behalf of the nation, at times.
3. Rashi Berachos 17a says that the nations, at times, follow their Representatives' leads.

But what is this being, precisely?
We might suggest that the Torah's concept of a "nation" is a concept which transcends the physical plane. A nation is not merely an agglomeration of human beings who live within certain borders, or identify with certain ideas. Instead, a nation is an actualization, or a coalescing, of certain ideas and philosophies.

See, for example, the Gemara's account of what happened when Gd offered the Torah to different nations, and they rejected it because it did not fit their philosophies. Are we to think that flesh-and-blood human beings rejected Gd's offer, and told Gd they couldn't follow Him because they wanted to kill, steal, etc? I think the idea here is that each of the nations represents a combination of ideas - and none of those combinations fit the Torah.

Working with this understanding of what a nation is, we must conclude that a "nation" is an identity which exists on a spiritual plane, too. The angel is merely the manifestation of the "nation" on that plane. Thus the angel intercedes on behalf of the nation, thus the physical nation may follow the spiritual nation's lead at times, and thus the spiritual nation may be hurt when the physical nation is hurt.

This concept of an angel is very different from Ibn Ezra's "animation of a physical entity." Here we are talking about a being with a defined mission, but an apparently loose set of rules defining how that mission is to be carried out. These rules are loose enough that Esav's Angel may decide to attack Yaakov.

Why did the Spiritual Esav attack the Physical Yaakov, though, rather than attack Yaakov's Angel? Perhaps Yaakov was not yet at the point of nationhood, where he would have his own Angel. Note that he gains the national title "Yisrael" only through this battle.

The Battle and the Blessing
When Esav's Angel battles Yaakov, he finds that Yaakov is too powerful, and that he cannot defeat Yaakov.

The Angel had to leave in order to sing praise to Gd at dawn, as Rashi cites from the Midrash. Yaakov would not allow the Angel to leave without a blessing, though:

"Your name will no longer be called Yaakov, rather it will be Yisrael, for you battled with spiritual beings and with human beings, and you were victorious."
With these words, Esav is forced to recant his claim to the blessings which Yaakov had taken. "I said you were called Yaakov because you employed clever trickery. In fact, you are Yisrael - you have won these blessings from me."

Phyllis pointed out today that this is a bit odd - why does Yaakov's victory in battle give him the right to the blessings? If they are stolen, then they are stolen regardless of Yaakov's victory in a wrestling match!
Perhaps the answer is that the angel would not have been able to defeat Yaakov on a spiritual level, had Yaakov not been spiritually correct in taking the blessings.

Now that Yaakov has defeated Spiritual Esav, there is no need for Physical Esav to battle him - and so Esav greets Yaakov without a war.

Rashi's interpretation of the blessing has one advantage over that of Ibn Ezra. Within Ibn Ezra's view, the blessing is a message of encouragement, sent directly from Gd. In that case, why did Yaakov have to force it out of the angel, demanding "Bless me" in exchange for letting the Angel go? For Rashi, though, this makes sense - the blessing was not a pre-programmed message, but it was actually a blessing wrested from the Angel with force.

As Arthur pointed out today, though, this blessing is not 100% blessing - the blessing of Esav never is perfect. Yaakov is re-named Yisrael, but his life as a battler would only get tougher from the time he left Esav. Dinah would be taken, Shimon and Levi would go to war, Rachel would die, Yosef would be sold down to Egypt. The life of Yisrael is a constant battle.

The Malach's Name
Rashi, like Ibn Ezra, does not explain why Yaakov asked for the name of the Angel.

The Shining Sun
Finally, when Yaakov leaves the site we are told, "VaYizrach Lo haShemesh," "And the sun shone for him." The word "Lo," "for," is superfluous. After pointing out the literal reading, Rashi adds a level of Derash suggesting that the sun shone for Yaakov's needs, rejuvenating him. The rejuvenating power of the sun is mentioned in several places in the Gemara. (See Shabbos 129a and Nedarim 8b, for example.)

I expect to be in Atlanta next Shabbos. In two weeks' time, I hope to finish our discussion of Rashi's view, and add some material from the Ramban, before we move on to the next topic.

Have a good two weeks,
Mordechai Torczyner


Yaakov and the Stranger - Week Five


This week we wrapped up our look at Rashi's perspective on Yaakov's battle with the Angel, and we added a few notes from the Ramban:

Rashi's View
Rashi's understanding of this event, as we explained it in the previous two e-mails, is influenced by three major "Derash" components:
1. The Gemara's tradition - Rashi's understanding of angels, and of the concept that each nation has a spiritual representative, comes from the Gemara's own comments.
2. Loose Deduction - This is what allows Rashi to suggest that Yaakov went back for small vessels, rather than take Ibn Ezra's minimalist explanation that Yaakov went back to see if anything had been left behind. Both are trying to answer the same question - why Yaakov is alone - but Rashi (citing the Gemara) embellishes somewhat, where Ibn Ezra's "Peshat" approach stops short.
3. Parallel Language - Rashi interprets the angel's blessing of Yaakov based upon the similar words which Esav used when discussing Yaakov's successful attempt to grab the blessings from him.

The central points for Rashi and Ibn Ezra are:
1. Ibn Ezra and Rashi agree that Yaakov was alone because he was taking care of a small job.
2. The angel was:
Ibn Ezra - A messenger from Gd, to encourage Yaakov
Rashi - Fighting the battle between Yaakov and Esav, on another level
3. The angel's blessing was:
Ibn Ezra - A message of encouragement, telling Yaakov he could defeat Esav
Rashi - A grudgingly-granted sign of Yaakov's victory over Esav

We brought in the Ramban to deal with a couple of points which Ibn Ezra and Rashi did not address.

Why was Yaakov alone?
First, we pointed out that Ramban has a bit of a different understanding of what Yaakov was trying to accomplish in traveling alone, that night. According to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Yaakov and his crew were on a collision course with Esav. Ramban, though, believed that Yaakov and his crew were heading in a different direction, trying to get away from Esav.

As Ramban reads the story, Yaakov sent his family ahead first (Bereishis 32:23), and then sent his servants and his property (Bereishis 32:24). Yaakov then takes up the rear, alone, intending to protect the others by facing Esav himself. Thus, Yaakov stood alone because he didn't want anyone else to be at risk.

Yaakov's thigh
According to Ramban, there is a major element of destiny in Yaakov's fight with the angel. The wound to Yaakov's thigh is a reference to the power which Esav would hold over Yaakov's descendants. Specifically, Ramban said that this refers to generations in which Esav is able to dominate Yaakov, and halt the spread of Torah.
The angel's message is that Esav will yet have his periods of dominance - but the angel is not able to fully defeat Yaakov, indicating that Yaakov will survive those tough times.
This message is memorialized in the commandment forbidding us from eating the Gid haNasheh, that part of Yaakov that was wounded.

The Name of the Angel
Finally, we turn to the passage wherein Yaakov asks the angel for his name, and is refused. Why did the angel refuse? Why did Yaakov want his name?
Ramban suggests that the name of a powerful being is invoked in prayer. When we ask for some form of intercession or add, we use the name of the being on whom we are calling. Yaakov is asking for the angel's name, so that he will be able to call on him. The angel responds, "My name is worthless to you. Power comes from HaShem; pray to HaShem when you want something."
It is worth noting that this is part of a major debate in Jewish thought regarding prayers (such as those at the end of Selichos, or in Birchas Kohanim, or preceding the blowing of the Shofar) which invoke the names of angels. Many great authorities have banned the recital of those prayers, either due to concern that the prayers were directed to angels, or concern lest they appear to be directed to angels.
The Ramban's view is clear - we don't turn to angels, we turn to HaShem.

Next week, Gd-willing, we begin the topic of Why Chava Ate From the Tree.

Have a good week,
Mordechai Torczyner

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