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 there.” (32:23-30)
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 scholar).
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 and ambitions.
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 thought.
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 prosperity.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week’s publication is sponsored by the Kuhnreich family, in memory of R’ Moshe ben R’ Yochanan.