“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Bereishit 32:24
It was the great American leader and Rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik, who asked, in his seminal work The Lonely Man of Faithn whether loneliness can be either the Kierkegaardian anguish – an ontological fear nurtured by the awareness of nonbeing threatening one’s existence – or the feeling of loneliness solely due to my own personal stresses, cares and frustrations – or even the result of pervasive state of mind of Western man who has become estranged from himself, a state with which all of us Westerners are acquainted?
Whatever kind of loneliness Jacob was experiencing at this stage in the Bible, what we can’t argue with is the influence this scene has had on humanity and the Jewish people. One of my favourite artistic depictions of this episode is the 19th century French artist, Leon Bonnat’s evocative depiction of the struggle – in which the physicality of the struggle is clear. In me, it defines the intensity of the scuffle.
In Jewish thought, the encounter between Jacob and Esau is a representation of something larger… The fight is between two diametrically opposed philosophies and ideologies. Jacob, remaining alone, signifies the way Jacob appears alone throughout history. The Jewish people are the nation that have remained separate throughout the course of our history. Our dietary laws, our Sabbath and our clothing have historically distanced us from our neighbours.
The symbolism of Jacob’s epic struggle alone throughout the darkness is seen by some as emblematic of the internal struggle each one of us face.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, head of the Mirrer yeshiva in the middle of the 20th century, quotes a Midrash to illustrate the struggle we face within ourselves.
Rebi Abba said: the evil inclination can be compared to a decrepit man who posed as a robber sitting at a crossroads and ordering whoever passed by to surrender his possessions, until a shrewd person walked by and saw that he was too feeble to rob anyone and beat him.
Our Sages offer here a crucial incite to the tactics utilized by the evil inclination. In reality, “he” is weak and impotent. His strength lies only in the pretense and illusion he creates. When one realizes that it is an illusion, then one can avoid being entrapped by it.
This profound understanding of the essence of the evil inclination was revealed to Jacob by the angel of Esau at the time of his struggle. Having overpowered the Angel, Jacob asked him: “Please tell me your name”. He replied: “why do you ask for my name?”
By asking for his name, Jacob was asking him to explain his essence. The name of an entity in Jewish thought defines its essence. This we learn from the fact Adam’s greatness lay in his ability to give names to all living creatures, thereby defining their essence.
The Angel of Esau was not posing a question but rather offering a reply. For the evil inclination, it’s strength lies in the fact that people do not pause to examine it more closely to know my name, it’s essence, for if they would, it would dispel the grand illusion. Very often, in the heat of the moment, we are tempted to say something or do something that in the cool light of day we never would have otherwise considered and have been tempted to compromise on one of our values. It is our inability to think clearly and to give ourselves the thinking time that leads us to fail to see the illusory nature of the evil inclination.
Another possible understanding of the Angel’s reply to Jacob, is that in truth the angel had no name, for a name denotes a tangible reality. The evil inclination has no definition in a tangible sense, since it does not exist in the reality it presents. It is nameless. Hence, the angel retorts to Jacob why do you ask my name for I have none. The fact that the evil inclination does not have a clear identity but, as our Sages tell us, morphs and takes on various guises, makes it the most exceptionally lethal adversary.
On one occasion, it can be tempting us to transgress; on other occasions, to be lax and lazy and miss opportunities for growth; and yet on some occasions it can even take on the guise of a wise sage inside us encouraging us to carry out a certain mitzvah. Sometimes that encouragement to carry out an act of altruism and chesed which would normally be praiseworthy, yet on occasion may also be wrong and be driven by the evil inclination. This could occur if for example a person pushes themselves to over-exert themselves in helping others which may well be at the expense of their own wellbeing or that of their nearest and dearest. The incognito nature of the evil inclination, the internal battle we all face makes it very challenging to pin down unless one is truly in touch with oneself.
Israel despite having one of the best defenses and security forces in the world has over the last 30 years faced horrendous suicide bombings, which wreaked havoc and fear on the whole population. The success of the terrorists has been their ability to blend into their surroundings and constantly change their guise from being disguised as Chassidim, to Israeli soldiers and even women.
The differing natures of each of us makes it inevitable for the evil inclination to continue to challenge us that it must do two things. Firstly, as we have mentioned it must operate in different areas and in different guises. Every person due to our differing personalities and strengths and weaknesses will find that we face challenges in the particular areas that we struggle with. For some that may be the ability to perform mitzvot, for others it may be our character traits such as controlling our anger or jealousy. Secondly, the level and intensity of the test and challenge that we face in our internal struggle will vary from person to person, but will always be tailor made to give us the opportunity to choose good from bad and become as a result stronger and better people.
When Jacob wrestles with this angel he takes on a new name “Yisrael” which means “you strove with G-d and with man”. Living up to the Jewish people’s name of “Yisrael”, is all about striving both in areas between us and G-d and areas between us and our fellow man. It is a lifelong challenge that we face but ultimately living up to such a challenge will enable us like Jacob at the end of this encounter to ultimately see the light of redemption.