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Jewish Texts

The Chumash (Five Books of Moses)

Jacob’s fight with the Angel

Question: All of these questions bothered me for years. I tried looking in the commentaries with no great success…

Answer: I think your questions are wonderful, and I have struggled with (some of) them too. All I can do is to share some of my own thoughts; maybe you have more of your own. I’ve rearranged some of the questions.

Question:Why did Yaakov (Jacob) call the angel ‘elohim’? We don’t believe Gd would be incarnated in a human body Why did Yaakov name the place Peniel? If this is only a revelation of certain particular aspect of Gdliness, which aspect was it?

Answer: Elohim is a generic term in the Torah and Tanach for someone very powerful (see, for instance, Genesis 6(2) for princes and Exodus 22(7-8) for judges). So too for the name El.

Question: Did Yaakov know that the “man” he was fighting was an angel? Why is he called a man if clearly he is not?

Answer: I think this is the norm. Throughout Tanach (scripture), angels appear as human beings in prophetic visions, and are called “men”. Given that the Rambam (Maimonides) says that they are non-physical, this must be part of how the vision is presented to the prophet. Maybe it’s because as human beings, we expect to speak with other human beings.

Question: What lessons are we supposed to draw from Yaakov’s struggle if we aren’t told the purpose or the reason this fight took place? Did Yaakov know what the fight was about? Why aren’t we told what was the purpose of this fight?

Answer: He seems to have understood the fight better than I do! But it’s again very normal for prophetic visions in Tanach that the prophet doesn’t understand clearly what’s happening, at least at the beginning. Part of the vision is sorting this out. A very clear example is the story of Samson’s parents in Judges 13; they don’t seem to realize that it’s a prophetic vision till it’s all over. See also the meeting of Yosef and “the man” who sends him on the way to his brothers.

The truth is that there is a class of parts of the Torah which are very hard to read. Exodus 4, the story of the attack on Moshe as he returns to Egypt, is a really extreme example. I find it close to unreadable, and I can testify that my Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”l said that it is the hardest section in the Torah. But see also Exodus 33-34, where G-d reveals himself to Moshe, and tells him that “His face cannot be seen”. Rashi’s commentary explanations of the dialogue there are very difficult, with some questions following their answers. And the Ramban’s commentary says that that section has no simple reading.

These kinds of sections refer to connections between man and the divine, and all of them are really tough. Could be most of us “don’t know the math to follow nuclear physics”, if you know what I mean.

Here too in our story. My friend Rabbi David Fohrman had a very interesting observation: This section has almost no indications of which side is which. “He saw that he wasn’t able against him, and he touched him on the hollow of the thigh;” – who? “And the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was wrenched” – Oh! Now we backtrack – So that means that the angel was the one who wasn’t able, and Yaakov was winning…

“He said to him, ‘Let me go, for the morning has risen.’ He answered, ‘I will not let you go, until you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?” – who? “He said, Yaakov”. – Oh! So that means that the angel was the one who asked to be let go, and Yaakov is the one who asked for the blessing…

It’s all very remarkable. The identities of the two participants are blurred for most of the story. Perhaps that is why our sages saw this as principally a struggle between Yaakov and part of himself, against the yetzer hara. He was proving himself spiritually worthy to build the nation of Israel.

Question: Why would Yaakov accept a new name – Yisrael – from his enemy? Perhaps it wasn’t an enemy after all? How do the commentaries know it was Esau’s angel? Why did he ask an enemy for a blessing? What exactly was the blessing?

Answer: Maybe I should just stay with what I wrote already – these are good questions. But briefly: our sages say that Yaakov and Esav divided the universe in the womb – Esav got this world, Yaakov got the next. That says to me that Yaakov on some level represents the spiritual, and Esav (man of the field) represents the physical. I assume that the same is true for Esav’s “guardian angel”. This blessing, which Yaakov has been working to get and to earn his whole life, somehow represents Esav’s buy-in to the way the world is supposed to be run: the physical in service to the spiritual. And Yaakov is worthy to represent that. G-d will give Yaakov the same name a little bit later, but Esav needs to acknowledge it for the blessing to be complete.

Question: How come the angel didn’t know Yaakov’s name? Wasnt he sent by Gd test Yaakov?

Answer: I thought the question was rhetorical: he needed Yaakov to give his old name, and he would give him an upgrade.

Question: Can an angel bless anyone without being commanded by Hashem? Why would it matter to an angel if the night ends? Especially if he was Gd’s messenger?

Answer: Rashi says that the angel had to “sing shirah”, songs to Gd, in the morning. Rav Gedalia Schorr z”l has a fascinating explanation of this. He asks, was it just bad luck for the angel that his turn came up just as Yaakov was holding him prisoner? Seems kind of silly. But what’s actually happening is that this angel fulfilled his purpose for the first time in history. His job is to test mankind, to help us grow to greatness by struggling against him. Yaakov was the first person who won. That’s why the angel wanted to sing shirah: for the first time, he had fulfilled his purpose and his destiny.

And of course the angel could never bless anyone without Hashem’s command. It’s just that he has an unusual job: he’s the one who tests us. Occasionally, he gets to give out a diploma. (See also the first chapter of Job, where the Heavenly Hosts assemble before G-d – and the Accusing Angel is among them.)

Question: Why is the word “tzela” understood as a vein? or a tendon while in the portion of Bereishis its translated as “rib”?

Answer: This question is a little confusing. The vein or tendon is called “gid”, which always means something like tendon. “Tzoleya” here refers to Yaakov limping on his side, and indeed “tzela” always means “side”. See, for instance, numerous references in Exodus 26 to “tzela hamishkan”, the side of the mishkan.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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