Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: V'yishlach

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The Spirit of the Struggle

By Michael Chessen

In this week's Torah reading, V'yishlach, Jacob prepares himself to meet his brother and adversary, Esau. Jacob has little clue as to what to expect from the man from whom he had wrested the blessing of the first born twenty-two years earlier. Accordingly, as the two brotherly camps approach one another, Jacob enlists a scouting expedition (of actual angels) in order to assess Esau's intentions towards him. Despite the considerably "elite" nature of Jacob's emissaries, they don't apparently provide him with any especially sophisticated assessment of Esau's intentions toward him beyond presenting the purely objective finding that Esau was traveling toward Jacob with a company of four hundred men.

While struggling to read his brother's intentions towards him, Jacob's preparations for speculated worst and best case scenarios are famously defined by our Rashi commentary as sending gifts (for appeasement), prayer and the readiness for battle. The midrashic compiler and commentator Me'am Lo'ez cites this poignantly recorded moment of Jacob's anticipation and struggle to overcome fears and apprehension as an apt reading for every Saturday night when we prepare ourselves to meet whatever challenges await us during the coming new week.

The tension immediately preceding Jacob's meeting Esau receives brilliant metaphoric representation by way of Jacob's wrestling bout with "a man", identified by commentators as Esau's personal angel. Whereas Maimonides sees this "angelic struggle" as no more than a vision, our focus is properly on Jacob rather than his adversary, and accordingly the incident's deeper significance is quite arguably free of any connection to physical authenticity.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand cites Jacob's inquiry of the angel's name as an anxious attempt to learn and define the nature of the Jewish people's future struggles. In responding not that he is not allowed to tell Jacob his name, but in simply asking Jacob why he would ask such a question, the angel actually indirectly offers Jacob an answer. This being that the challenges which await the Jewish people offer no easy or consistent definitions. While each generation will certainly do well to learn from the trials and tribulations of those who came before them, no generation will necessarily be able to rest easily upon the laurels of its elders.

Jacob's struggle, however, does offer us a vital and enduring legacy, that being the name "Israel", signifying that with proper spiritual guidance, the Jewish people will be able to struggle and prevail.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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