Yaakov’s wrestling match with the angel defined him. He would forever after be known as Yisrael – the one “who wrestled with God”. His struggle ultimately ended in victory, but the battle was not won until the very end:
And he (the angel) said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ And he (Yaakov) said: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he (the angel) said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said: Yaakov.’ And he (the angel) said, ‘Not Yaakov shall your name hence be said, but Yisrael, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.’ (Genesis 32:27-29)
Sages and scholars throughout the ages have “wrestled” with trying to identify the angel. For the purpose of the following midrash from Eretz Yisrael (~4th-5th century), however, we will consider the angel as just an angel who desired to fulfill God’s will. If that was truly the angel’s sole purpose, Yaakov should have had no difficulties with said angel since he also saw himself as a servant of God. If only life were that simple!
This struggle with the angel served as inspiration for a midrashic dialogue between Yaakov and the angel, which to my mind, attempts to offer an allegorical model of the human struggle to seek intimacy with God in a world troubled by the exigencies of life:
And he (the angel) said: Send me forth, for the time has arrived for me to offer praise to the Holy One Blessed be He. He (Yaakov) said to him: Your fellow angels will offer praise [for you]. He (the angel) replied: I am not able. Tomorrow, I will come to offer praise and they will say to me, just as you did not offer praise yesterday, so, too, you cannot offer praise today. Yaakov replied: So, finish your work (namely, bless me, for) ‘I will not send you forth until you bless me’!
Yaakov continued: Those angels who came to Avraham did not leave him without blessing him. The angel replied: Those angels were sent for that very purpose but I was not sent to do so. Yaakov again demanded: Finish your work or ‘I will not send you forth’.
Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: The angel said to him: Those ministering angels, since they revealed the secrets of the Holy One Blessed be He, were ousted from God’s presence for 138 years; if I listen to you, I will be ousted from My place. Yaakov replied: Finish your work, for I will not send you forth until you bless me.’
Said Rabbi Huna: In the end, the angel said: I will reveal to him (Yaakov) [God’s blessing]. If the Holy One Blessed be He should say to me: Why did you reveal it to him? I will answer him: Master of the World, Your prophets decree decrees and you do not cancel their decrees. How then can I cancel their decrees, [namely Yaakov’s demands]? And so, the angel said to him: In the future, God will reveal to you at Beit El and change your name and I will stand there [by God’s side when He does so]. (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 78:2 Theodore-Albeck ed. pp. 918-20)
Yaakov was a man whose life was filled with struggles which challenged his faith and his connection with God. The angel represents those challenges. Yaakov met his challenges armed with great fortitude.
We, too, face times in our lives when no matter how diligent we are in our determination to come closer to God, we still seem to be at loggerheads to make it happen. Things just seem to get in the way, obstacles appear out of nowhere and drag us down. Yaakov clearly would have recognized this feeling. Still, he understood that life must be lived with determination, without giving up and ultimately his blessings were realized. This formula has the potential to work for us as well.