There are many famous questions posed by scholars of all generations about the midnight wrestling match of Yaakov and the malach. It is amazing that even with the surprising amount of details provided, there is a myriad more details still needed to fully understand what occurred and why it is significant.
One fascinating question not among the more frequently discussed commentaries might be concerning pasuk 32:28” “Said he to him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said ‘Yaakov.’” The next verse is the famous pasuk in which Yaakov is given the new name of Yisrael, which perhaps overshadows an interesting oddity. Didn’t the malach know with whom he was wrestling? After all, he was the one who attacked Yaakov!
Let us take a step back to the beginning of the parsha and the one overriding emotion we learn from Yaakov in the beginning of Vayishlach – he was afraid. He plans and strategizes about dividing his camp. He calls out to God with almost desperate fervor, reminding God rather directly of His promise for Yaakov’s future. He sends gifts, lots of gifts, to temper his brother’s feelings.
Let us remember that he is a malach, and therefore, ultimately, an agent of Hashem. Perhaps when the malach asked for his name, what he was really doing was reminding Yaakov to be himself. The name given to him at birth is more than just a reminder that Yaakov grabbed hold of Eisav’s heel as they were being born, it tells of an ongoing character trait. From the very beginning, Yaakov knew that he needed to be the one to carry on the work of Avraham, and since birth, nothing stopped him from working to attain the rights of the bachur. He used his brains (buying the birthright), he used his brawn (working hard to marry the women who were destined to create klal Yisrael), and he even challenged Hashem in how he spoke to Him after his dream. At no point in any of these actions, not even when his mother told him that Eisav wanted like to kill him or when he was facing off with Lavan as he removed his family from Haran, is Yaakov described as being fearful or scared.
Now, however, with his wives and his children and the people in his care, Yaakov is afraid. The malach saw that weakness and came to challenge him. When the dawn begins to break, the malach knows that despite all the anxiety that Yaakov has expressed, he is still just as strong in his drive to carry on Avraham’s heritage. When the malach asks his name, he is relaying a message: know yourself. This moment of self-knowledge moves Yaakov to the next level of spirituality. One might even then see significance that the term the Torah uses to describe the actions of their struggle is avek (Aleph Veis Kuf אבק), which is oddly similar to akev (Ayin Kuf Veis עקב), the root of Yaakov’s name. After the wrestling is over, Yaakov’s new level is expressed in his new name, Yisrael, when the term ya’yayavek (יאבק) is exchanged for saaris (שׂרית), a very different type of word for struggle. Then, when Yaakov asks the malach for his name, he is subtly reproved with no answer, because the malach never needed to be reminded of his essence.
When the morning comes and Yaakov is faced with meeting Eisav, he is no longer afraid. Perhaps this might explain why when he meets Eisav his wives and children appear to be divided only into family groups, fairly close together in a non-defensive structure. Now that Yaakov is once again confident of who he is and what he needs to do, he is able to face Eisav and to keep him at bay with easy excuses to each of Eisav’s seemingly friendly overtures.
Yaakov’s actual encounter with Eisav can be, and has often been, understood as an excellent reflection of the recurring cycles of the feints of peace during the exile of Edom. This is significant today. We appear to be entering an era in which the false face of Eisav is crumbling once again and the underlying ferment of hate is bubbling to the surface. The wrestling match of Yaakov and the malach of Eisav is once again beginning, and we must be prepared to declare ourselves ready to stand with the strength of Yaakov as proud members of Bnei Yisrael, the descendants of he who has “striven with beings divine and human, and prevailed” (Bereishis 32:29).