Facing Our Struggles

Vayishlah By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Dec 12, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is surely among the most puzzling in the Bible. Ancient and modern commentators debate the identity and motivation of Jacob’s mysterious attacker. Is it a divine representative? Esau’s guardian angel? Esau himself? Or, perhaps, the struggle is internal, played out in the realm of dreams. I am struck by a more basic question. The text records that the attacker sets upon Jacob only after he has sent the rest of his camp over the Jabbok river, and Jacob is left alone. Given the number of people in his camp, how did Jacob end up alone in the first place? The answer reveals something essential about human nature.

It is with understandable anxiety that Jacob anticipates the meeting with his estranged brother. Jacob has not seen him in over twenty years, and, indeed, just after their last encounter, Esau had let it be known that he would surely kill Jacob as soon as family circumstances permitted (Genesis 27:41-2). Jacob’s distress is further intensified by the report that he receives that Esau was coming to meet him with four-hundred men.

Jacob responds to the threat with a multi-tiered plan. He adopts a defensive military strategy, dividing his household into two camps, (32:8-9) and hoping that even if Esau destroys one, the other will survive. He addresses the spiritual dimension and prays for divine assistance (32:10-13), reminding God of the various promises and covenants between them. Finally, he responds diplomatically by sending Esau a gift of flocks of animals to appease him, with a suitably conciliatory message (32:15-21).

At the last moment, though, the carefully laid plans seem to go awry-in the depth of night, Jacob transports all of his household and material possessions across the Jabbok, the river that separates him from Esau. The text is not conclusive as to whether he sends them across and remains, or actually brings them across and then doubles back. In either case, somehow, after everyone else has crossed, he remains behind, alone, “levado,” on the side furthest from Esau. Why would he separate himself from the rest of his household at such a critical moment?

Rabbi Elazar (T. B. Hullin 91a), in a statement often cited by Rashi and other commentators, indicates that Jacob stayed behind to search for “tiny vessels” that might have been left behind. Rabbi Elazar does not give the reason for this interpretation, but later commentators, like Rabbeinu Bahya, suggest that the origin of the interpretation is a midrash, now lost to us, which makes a pun on the word levado (alone). If one erases a leg of the vet, the word becomes lekado (for the sake of his pitcher). Why, though, would Jacob remain behind and abandon his household to go back and look for a few household utensils, when he has sufficient wealth to send hundreds of animals to his brother as a gift? Why would he risk life and (indeed, as it turns out) limb, for something so minor?

Rabbi Elazar goes on to suggest one possible motive for this strange behavior: “the righteous value their property more than their physical bodies, because they do not engage in theft.” One could interpret this statement as a sign of tremendous respect for personal property: if I am scrupulous with regard to the possessions of others, how much more scrupulous should I be in avoiding loss to my own? Of course, this can be taken to the extreme of miserliness. It is reported that Rav Hisda walked through bramble-bushes, he would lift up the hem of his garment, so that this legs would be scratched, rather than his clothing, arguing that “this (my body) will heal, this (the garment) will not heal!” (T.B Bava Kamma 81b). Indeed, later on in Genesis 45:20, Joseph seems to be addressing this type of behavior in his father Jacob. When Joseph sends his brothers to bring Jacob back to Egypt, he is concerned that they will tarry collecting their possessions and warns them “never mind your belongings (literally, vessels, kleikhem).”

Other sages, including Rashbam, reject this approach and present a more selfish motivation, a coward’s version of “women and children first.” By staying in the far rear, Jacob puts as much space as possible between himself and Esau. Even if Esau is not content with taking the three flocks of animals or the first and second camps of Jacob’s family, even if he is not stopped by the river, then at least Jacob will still have time to flee and save himself!

I would like to suggest a third answer, by way of a personal confession. When my family departs on a trip, there are certain key spots on the route to the highway where I will traditionally ask my wife whether I have forgotten some more-or-less important item. Fortunately, we’ve now reached the stage in our relationship where she can prevent me from turning back by reassuring me that either we do indeed have it, or at worst, we can find another one at our destination. It only takes a tiny stretch of the imagination to picture Rachel and Leah sighing in despair as Jacob wonders aloud whether he packed all of the items from the previous parashah: “Did we take the mandrakes? How about the peeled rods? We left behind all of the household idols, right?”

This last-minute dithering does not necessarily reflect disorganization. On the contrary, it reflects one of the basic pitfalls of human nature. At moments of crisis, it does not matter how much we planned and packed, how many checklists and contingencies we created; we can be overcome by anxiety, and fixate on irrelevant details rather than on the challenge at hand or the journey ahead. It is because he is unable to cope with the impending crisis with his brother that Jacob occupies himself with a tempest in a clay pot.

Jacob’s evening alone, and the epic struggle that ensues, holds an important lesson for those who are tempted to immerse themselves in irrelevancies rather than facing the challenges ahead. One can see the angel as symbolic of all those problems we would seek to ignore. Whether or not we seek them out, they have a way of finding us. Or, perhaps the angel is the voice in our internal struggle with that gives us the courage to let go of small things and address the important tasks at hand. We might emerge limping, but victorious, nonetheless.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Heller

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat Va-yishlah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.