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The Angel Within

By: Rav Michael Susman

Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ZT”L, whose Shloshim will be marked this week

Yaakov Avinu has had a tremendous amount of experience dealing with angels. Beginning with his flight to safety from Eretz Canaan to Charan, continuing twenty years later with his dream of being told by an angel to return to Eretz Canaan, and culminating with his meeting angels in Machanayim upon his return to Eretz Canaan, Yaakov's landscape includes angels as a familiar feature. It is uncertain, however, if any of those experiences fully prepared Yaakov for his encounter with a mysterious stranger (32:25), famously identified by the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 77:3) as the Guardian Angel of his brother Eisav. This position is adopted by Rashi as well as most other commentators.

In order to explain the concept of a Guardian Angel, Nechama Leibowitz (Iyunim B’Sefer Breishit Hebrew Edition pp 256-257) quotes Rav Nachman Krochmal, who conceives of a nation’s Guardian Angel as being the focal point of everything spiritual in that particular nation. The symbolism of the struggle that Yaakov has with this angel is a battle of the spiritual personalities of Bnei Yisrael and Eisav. It is not coincidental that this struggle takes place prior to the physical encounter between Yaakov and his brother. Before Yaakov can hope to physically defeat his stronger brother he must first prevail spiritually.

Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, First Series beginning on pg. 96), further develops the idea that Yaakov’s struggle with the angel was the turning point in his encounter with his brother, Eisav. As is his wont, Rav Samet begins by pointing out that the story of Yaakov’s meeting with the angel “interrupts” what we would have expected to be the focal point of this Parsha, namely the impending meeting of Yaakov and Eisav. Not only does it interrupt the larger story, but the two halves of the story that it interrupts are virtually identical in length. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Yaakov's meeting with the angel is the fulcrum upon which the rest of the story revolves. Rav Samet further develops this idea by noting that in the first half of the story, Yaakov’s fear and anxiety is palpable. “Save me from my brother, Eisav, for I fear that he will descend upon my encampment!” (32:11). Yet all the tension, stress and fear that Yaakov displays as he anticipates his impending confrontation with Eisav and is the focal point of the first section of the Parsha, dissipates in the final section to the point of near irrelevance. At that point Yaakov is calm and seemingly confident ahead of his meeting with Eisav, to the point that we feel that he is simply “going through the motions'' as he prepares for the rendezvous. The climactic has become anticlimactic. The only explanation for this is Yaakov’s struggle with the angel, prominently placed between the two halves of the story of Yaakov’s reunion with Eisav. 

The confrontation with the angel takes place after Yaakov has moved his family across Nachal Yabok under the cover of darkness. Yaakov’s fear and apprehension are at a fever pitch, and then he is attacked by the angel.  The struggle continues throughout the night. As dawn approaches the angel seeks to disengage, but Yaakov refuses to allow the angel to leave without first compelling the angel to bless him. Rav Samet understands the symbolism of the night turning into the day as paralleling Yaakov’s emergence from the night of fear and entering the day of control of his emotions and his destiny. Moreover, Eisav’s angel senses the change as well, for it is this change which drives him to try and escape Yaakov’s grasp. But Yaakov holds firm, and only releases the angel after obtaining the angel’s blessing, and equally important, the angel’s acquiescence to Yaakov’s acquisition of Yitzhak’s blessing so many years ago. It is no wonder, concludes Rav Samet, that all the tension of the previous night is gone. Yaakov goes forward to greet his brother without fear, because he knows that he has already won the battle, and the war. Eisav seems to understand this as well, and after a friendly encounter he disengages from Yaakov, and almost meekly takes his previously threatening brigade of soldiers with him. From the perspective of Rashi, as explained by Nechama and Rav Samet, ours is a story of Yaakov emerging triumphant from a spiritual struggle with Eisav’s Guardian Angel, a struggle which on the one hand foreshadows, but on the other hand and perhaps more fundamentally, overshadows, the physical meeting between Yaakov and Eisav.

Advancing a totally different approach, Rashbam suggests that we have misunderstood both who the angel is, as well as its role in the story. Yaakov, explains Rashbam, has in fact succumbed to the fear of his brother and seeks to flee into the night. The angel sent by HaShem is not the Guardian Angel of Eisav, but rather a different angel sent to prevent Yaakov from fleeing. The angel is tasked with reassuring Yaakov that Eisav will not destroy him or his family, and that all of Hashem’s previous promises to Yaakov will be fulfilled. 

And the angel barely succeeds. After grappling with Yaakov throughout the night, he finds that he can not prevent Yaakov from escaping, and is forced to resort to temporarily maiming Yaakov, striking him in the thigh. It is only at this point that Yaakov regains control, and a blessing from the angel for having overcome his fears. Nonetheless, his limp remains as a reminder of his previous unwillingness to trust in HaShem. The idea that he would be harmed for having tried to flee rather than follow the directives of Hashem is fine with Rashbam, as it is paralleled in other stories in Tanach.

Rashbam’s explanation turns our usual conception of Yaakov’s confrontation with the angel on its head. In this reading Yaakov is not defeating Eisav’s Guardian Angel, but rather a benevolent angel has arrived in the nick of time, forcing Yaakov to understand that Hashem’s promises will continue to be fulfilled and as such those promises will protect him from all harm.

There are many obvious drawbacks to Rashbam’s explanation (see for example, Nechama’s analysis in the above cited piece from Iyunim B’Sefer Breishit) and it is not my intention here to analyze his approach. Rather, I share it here because I found it illuminating as I considered a second non-traditional approach to our story, one developed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ZT”L, whose Shloshim will be commemorated after Shabbat. In the essay, Be Thyself (Lessons in Leadership pp35-39, also see the essay on Parshat VaYishlach in Covenant and Conversation) Rabbi Sacks suggests that when struggling with the stranger the real confrontation is within Yaakov himself. Yaakov, contends Rabbi Sacks, has always lived in Eisav’s shadow and has in fact “tried to be Eisav”.  This inevitably led to conflict and friction, which Yaakov seeks to escape when he flees to Charan.  But as we well know, conflict follows him there as well, and now, upon his return to Eretz Canaan, more conflict looms. In fact, posits Rabbi Sacks, throughout his life Yaakov is surrounded by more conflict than anyone else in Sefer Breishit. 

Yaakov is afraid and apprehensive, and with good reason.  And then he meets the stranger/angel, and the struggle begins. But the true struggle is within himself. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “That night, about to meet Eisav again after an absence of twenty-two years, Yaakov wrestles with himself; finally, he throws off the image of Eisav, the person he wants to be...This is the critical moment in Yaakov’s life. From now on he is content to be himself.”  And thus, he is able to approach the upcoming confrontation with Eisav not in fear or anxiety, but calmly and confidently.

This ability to be oneself, says Rabbi Sacks, is a necessary element for Yaakov to attain in order to be one of the Avot, and a leader of Am Yisrael.  And, continues Rav Sacks, it is a necessary element for all leaders, and for all of us. Failure to be oneself will inevitably cause an individual to try and please everyone, to avoid unpopular decisions and to ultimately lose integrity. Being comfortable with being ourselves allows us to be comfortable staking out unpopular positions and maintaining our personal integrity.

Coming from Rabbi Sacks, these are not just empty words, but a testament to how he lived his life.  יהיה זכרו ברוך



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