Wrestling for a Blessing

Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:3-36:43)

When Jacob and his family were leaving Laban in Paddan-aram and heading back to Canaan, Jacob began preparing for the inevitable. He would undoubtedly have a run-in with his brother Esau once they got nearer to home. Although twenty years had passed since he left with Esau’s birthright, Jacob was preparing his family for their encounter with his brother. He prayed to the Almighty, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children” (Genesis 32:11). He knew that, although time and distance were between them, there was no guarantee that Esau would allow bygones to be bygones. He seriously believed that Esau might attempt to exterminate his entire family, so he devised a plan for the survival of at least some of them. They traveled in small caravans with distance in between each group so that if Esau attacked one, then the others would have time to flee. Needless to say, Jacob was not looking forward to a reunion with his brother.

After sending the last of his family off, Jacob remained behind alone, evidently to spend the night before heading out himself the next morning. The Torah tells us that during the night, however, “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24). Much has been written to explain what exactly took place that night. Who was this mysterious figure that wrestled Jacob throughout the night? Was it an angel? Was it a demon? Was it Esau or someone representing him? 

We must remember that the Hebrew word for angel, malach, simply means “messenger.” It appears from the text, however, that this was no ordinary messenger. This was a divine being sent to convey an important message to Jacob and teach him a lesson. What lesson did Jacob learn from this all-night wrestling match? Up until this point, Jacob's response to problems was either to have someone else take care of it or to find the easy way out. Instead of receiving the blessing outright by telling his father that Esau had sold him the birthright, Jacob had to be coerced by his mother into a scheme to receive what was rightfully his. Rather than standing up to Laban for his trickery, Jacob spent twenty years trying to devise a plan to escape Laban’s dominance, and he eventually ends up sneaking off behind his back. Rather than confronting his brother Esau, Jacob schemed at how he could save his own neck.

The angel came to Jacob during the night to teach him about himself. He came to reveal to Jacob his true nature and character that he had repressed all of his life. He put Jacob into a situation that gave him no choice but to fight back with his entire being. He couldn’t escape his situation by his previous means and was therefore forced to confront his adversary in an engagement that lasted throughout the entire night.

In this event, Jacob sees what he is capable of for the first time. Rather than surrendering, he shows his tenacity by wrestling with the angel “until the breaking of day.” And then, when the angel wants to flee, Jacob doesn’t let him, even after having his hip dislocated in the process. By that point, Jacob had decided that he wasn’t going to give up this time. He had determined in his mind that he will fight to the end and come out on top this time. He gives the angel an ultimatum: Bless me, or I will hang on to you indefinitely.

We know the rest of the story. The angel blesses Jacob and changes his name from Jacob to Israel before fleeing into the diminishing shadows of night. But before Jacob’s name is changed by the angel, the transformation has taken place. He has wrestled with the Divine and overcome. Rather than merely resigning to fate, Jacob took a stand and held his ground. He took charge of his destiny and stepped into the calling that would forever change his life: He became Israel.

Many of us will do whatever it takes to avoid confronting our true selves and our true purpose in this life. We continually make excuses and find the easy way out. It is simply the path of least resistance. But only when we struggle with the Divine and overcome will we ever fulfill our purpose in this life. Jacob strove and overcame his natural inclination to become something greater. What is your struggle? Will you wrestle with your angel and overcome? Will you become the person Hashem intends for you to be?