August 7, 2018

Fighting your past to bless your future (Vayishlach)

This Shabbat we read Parshat Vayishlach which tells us about the fight between Yaakov and an angel. Of course, there are many profound lessons that we can learn from this extraordinary encounter which ended with Yaakov receiving the name Yisrael. However, I would like to focus on a single yet incredibly powerful lesson that we can learn from the identity of the angel – or more specifically – how he appeared to Yaakov.

The Gemara (Chullin 91a) records two opinions regarding what this angel looked like. According to Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani, the angel appeared to Yaakov as a non-Jewish idol worshipper, while Acha said in the name of Raba bar Ulla that he appeared to Yaakov as a Talmid Chacham. But what are we to learn from this apparent debate?

According to Rashi (in his commentary to the Gemara) both opinions are correct, meaning that the angel appeared to Yaakov as a non-Jewish idol worshipper while he spoke to Yaakov with dignity in the manner of a Talmid Chacham.

Clearly this dissonance must have been very frightening for Yaakov as he would have been unnerved by the mixed messages from the one whom he was battling. However, it seems clear that Rashi’s explanation is meant to highlight the connection between Yaakov’s fight with the angel and the time when Yaakov approached his father Yitzchak speaking in his voice while dressed in a way that he appeared like Esav. Just as Yaakov previously confused his father through mixed messages, he now had to confront the same situation because only by confronting his past could Yaakov benefit from the full extent of the blessings he received. This is why Yaakov ends his struggle with the angel by saying ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’, meaning that he understood that the wrestling with and blessing of the angel was, in effect, the ultimate affirmation of the blessing he received from his father Yitzchak around 35 years earlier.

Personally, I find this explanation deeply moving because many of the mistakes I have made and the blessings I have received at one stage in life have only been fully realized much later on in life – and especially – during times of challenge and difficulty. In general, few of us like to fight while most of us would rather hide than to battle. But among the many great lessons we can learn from this amazing story of Yaakov and the angel is that it is only we have to fight for who we are that we become who we need to be.

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