The story as it appears in the parsha seems like Jacob was the unquestioned victor. Jacob finds himself alone and is assaulted by an unknown אִישׁ֙ “man.” They wrestle until dawn. Although Jacob is injured above his thigh, he seems to have pinned down this mysterious foe. The man pleads to be released. The first hint that something of a far reaching spiritual nature comes from what Jacob extracts from the man before letting him go. A blessing? This isn’t what you usually demand from a mugger. Furthermore, why does this angel appeal for his release כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר because of “the dawn of a new day. “ (Genesis 32:27). What is so compelling to the angel about sunrise?
The Midrash fills in the details. This is the guardian angel of Esau. The angel has to go to work at sunrise. His role is to praise God. Yes, even guardian angels of our enemies work for God. * (See a beautiful explanation from Hasidic masters in the footnote below) Of course, this implies that this whole struggle was arranged by God. Jacob’s victory certainly gave him the confidence to face his real foe – Esau
A struggle throughout the ages
As the Midrash unravels this mysterious encounter it is clear that we are talking about the nature of our long term interactions with Edom – Rome – the nation that Esau represents. The Midrash brings an analogy of someone wrestling with the prince while the king is watching. He purposely loses the match so as not to anger the king. This would seem to indicate that our enemies are powerless against us because God is watching over us. No one would dare start up with the Jewish People. That can’t be in the short term because Jewish history tells a far different story.
A severe injury and a frightening fire
Jacob came out of the predawn confrontation with a limp. The Midrash likens it to a campaign of terror against our greatest scholars. דורו של שמד “The generation of destruction” (Genesis Rabbah 72:4). Nachmonides (1194 – 1270), says that Jews in the Mishnaic period were tortured to death with red hot balls of iron. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah: 2:7) “and in subsequent generations they did this and worse.” (Nachmonides on Genesis 32:32)
In the Midrash, the angel starts a fire to intimidate Jacob. Although Jacob is not intimidated, the classic commentator to Midrash Rabbah, Yefei Toar, (Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi -1525- 1595) takes this fire to, once again, signal tragic consequences for the Jewish People. With many Jews dying in “trials by fire.” (An analogy that could be applied to the crematoria as well). Furthermore, the Midrash says that the angel of Esau was disguised as a Shepherd with an endless number of sheep. Once again, the Yefei Toar sees this as a sign that the confrontation between the Jewish People and the last exile of Rome (that we are still in) will go on for a seemingly endless amount of time. Although, there is a bright spot – despite all the world powers that have dominated the Jews, they are gone and we are still here.
A story designed to defy logic
The Midrash ends on an enigmatic note. Jacob wrestled out of the angel the news that God was going to change his name to Yisrael. And since God indeed kept His promise to change Jacob’s name, this is a sure sign that God will listen to prophecies about our ultimate return to Jerusalem in Messianic times.
Is this really the basis in believing our prophets, starting with Moses, who promised our ultimate return to Jerusalem?
The Midrash provides a few clues to make sense of this puzzling assertion. Let’s start with Jacob’s change in name. Jacob had the angel in a chokehold. All the angel did was share what God was about to do anyways. Why did Jacob accept the blessing? Let us recall how significant Abraham and Sarah’s change in name was for their destiny to have a child when it was physically impossible. The Midrash makes the point with great subtlety:
:בַּר קַפָּרָא אָמַר כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא קוֹרֵא לְאַבְרָהָם אַבְרָם עוֹבֵר בַּעֲשֵׂה. “Bar Kaparah said “who ever calls Avraham (by the name) Avram, transgresses on a positive commandment in the Torah.” (Midrash Rabbah 78:3).
Changing a name signifies a change in destiny. The combative Jacob has to outsmart Esau and stay on the run. Yisrael is a name of royalty which the Jewish People (Bnei Yisrael) The Children of Israel adopt. Furthermore it attests to the fact that כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹקים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל “Because you (Jacob) fought with a God-like creature and with men and you prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) How did Jacob win? Was it sheer force? No it was the spiritual sheer force of his unflinching faith and commitment to God.
Jacob wrestled Jerusalem out of the angel
The next clue in the Midrash comes when Jacob confronts his brother Esau and says: כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָּנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹקים. “for seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis: 33:10) Jacob was dropping a hint. He just prevailed against an angel with Esau’s face. But what was really on his mind was that the Jewish People will once again come ‘face to face with God’ in Messianic times. Because he had just wrestled a promise that, whether we are worthy or not, we will once again bring sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem – וְלֹא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם “And you shall not see My face (in the Temple of Jerusalem) empty handed.” (Shemot 23:15)
The dawning of a new day
Finally, the Midrash explains what exactly the angel pleaded to end the fight: וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר “And he said “let me go because it is the dawning of a new day” (Genesis 32:27) . God brings about dramatic renewals. Sunrise reminds us of God’s power to resurrect the dead. It also reminds us that the Jewish People will rise again in their capital city of Jerusalem.
Now we understand why the angel of Esau said, “release me because of the dawning of a new day.” Yes, the seemingly interminable struggle between Esau and Jacob does indeed have an end point. And the angel has conceded the outcome of that struggle:
After the seeming reconciliation between Jacob and Esau later in our Parsha, Jacob promised to join up with his brother. According to the Midrash, Jacob had in mind the ultimate meeting which the angel of Esau just conceded to him: (Midrash Rabbah 78:14)
וְעָל֤וּ מֽוֹשִׁעִים֙ בְּהַ֣ר צִיּ֔וֹן לִשְׁפֹּ֖ט אֶת־הַ֣ר עֵשָׂ֑ו וְהָיְתָ֥ה לַֽהי הַמְּלוּכָֽה׃
The exiles from Jerusalem) shall march up victorious on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and God will manifest His Kingship (in the world)” (Ovadia 1:21)
* In his weekly shiur, Rabbi Fyvel Shuster explained that the angel of Esau is still an angel of God it really does not want to succeed in breaking a Jew’s connection with God . In this case, the angel failed in its struggle with Jacob so it needed to sing praises to God, rejoicing in its failure. You can see the whole amazing shiur here https://vimeo.com/647052988