Yael Chaya Miriam Gray

What’s the wrestling match between Yaakov and Esau’s angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Bereishis 32: 22-31) all about?

An Answer: Our Sages tell us that what happened to the Avot (fathers) in the Torah is a signpost for their children: what’s happened to the fathers in the past will happen to their children in the future[1]. So when Yaakov wrestled with the malakh (angel) of Esau – whom we call by the first two letters of his name, “Samekh Mem,” but whose full name is “Sama*l,” a combination of “Samekh Mem” and “Kel”[2] – Yaakov reenacted Akeidas Yitzchok. He “bound” the “SaM” part of Esau’s celestial representative with his arms, like Avrohom bound Yitzchok, Yaakov’s father, with strong cords, and placed him atop the wood on the altar of his heart, to slaughter him.

Why? So that the “Kel” part of Samekh Mem – which is of lofty divine origin[3] – could re-name Yaakov “Israel” (“he who contends with men and divine beings and prevails”) [4] and bless him[5] before being released to sing Shira[6] with the other malakhim, for the first time ever[7]. Yaakov is the very first human being who literally wrestled with and bound the angel of death, an achievement so enormous it can scarcely be overstated. That is one of the reasons why our Sages say that Yaakov Avinu never died[8].

There’s good mussar in this story. As Hashem’s priests, we must likewise strive with and bind the “Samekh Mem” (evil inclination) within each of us, to restrain our evil desires so that there is “room” on the altar of our souls for the “Kel” part – its “twin,” our Yetzer Tov – to take root, to blossom, and to thrive, without undue interference from the chitzonim (forces of evil).

This is easier said than done, given the nature of the chitzonim. For the name, Sama*l, is prophetic[9]. It signifies a malakh with a unique and unusually powerful dual personality[10]. The “Samekh Mem” portion of Sama*l – the evil part – stands in opposition to the “Kel” part of Sama*l – the good part. Because the “Samekh Mem” portion of Sama*l is Esau (the evil inclination, originating in the gevurot of Imma Ila’ah[11], which emerged first [12], with Olam HaTohu, while the “Kel” part of Sama*el is Yaakov* (the good inclination), originating in the Chasadim of Abba[12a]. which came out of the cosmic womb after the gevurot of Imma Ila’a, holding onto the “heel” of his “brother,” Esau.[13].

Now, it may be mere coincidence, but I find it significant that the name of Yaakov’s celestial representative and Sama*l’s “twin” brother (or opposite number) is Mi-Ka-Kel (“who is like to Kel”), sometimes called Metat. Mi-Ka-Kel is Enoch, and he is the Sa’ar in charge of G-d’s celestial regions, the mightiest angel in the heavens and the Sa’ar of the people of Israel.

Here’s why I find his name so significant. G-d loves wordplay, and deploys it in the Torah again and again. And our Sages tell us that in the messianic future, G-d will actually vanquish the “Samekh Mem” part of Sama*l, and not just bind it, as Yaakov did at the Ford of Jabbok.

What’s left of Sama*l after G-d does that? Only the holy “Kel” part, the last to emerge from the cosmic “womb” which is the mind of G-d, but the first to be conceived there[14]. Because in Kabbalah, the rule is, “Last in creation, first in thought.” [15] So although the “Kel” part of Sama*l came out after the gevurot of Ima Ila’ah from which sprang the “Samaekh Mem” part of Sama*l, the source of the “Kel” part of Sama*l is higher than the source of the “Samekh Mem” part, and it is superior.[16]

The evil part of Sama*l having been vanquished, something very curious now happens. Like seeks like, so the surviving part of the former Sama*l – the “Kel” part, the “repentant” Esau – grabs onto the heel of its cosmic twin, Mi-Ka-Kel, Yaakov, G-d’s true firstborn[17]. And in a prophesied reversal[18] so grand and unexpected that only G-d could think it up, the surviving “Kel” part of Sama*l and the “Kel” part of Mi-Ka-Kel then fuse to sing Shira together as a single supernal being at the head of the ministering angels[18].


[1] Nachmanides. R. Yanki Tauber, “The Book Of Genesis With Commentary By 500 Sages And Mystics,” (Open Door Books, NY, NY: 2023), pp. 121-122.

[2] “I have explained the word סם-Kאל as being composed of סם, poison, something harmful and of א-לK, something godly, i.e. good and wholesome. We can divide the expression מלאך המות, angel of death, similarly. The מות, i.e. death part of the expression is something negative, whereas the מלאך, i.e. angel part of the word is something good, positive. The good is mixed in with the bad.” Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebikhtav, Vayeishlach, Torah Ohr, by R. Eliyahu Munk.

[3] “The first verse of the Torah [‘Bereishis bara Elokhim bara et ha shamayim et ha eretz’] may have yet another meaning. It is to inform us that at the beginning G’d established earth [Olam haTohu] as equal to heaven [Olam HaTikkun] in spite of the fact that the heavens are the “upper” parts of the universe. Nonetheless, the earth [Esau] started out by being pure. We need no other proof for this than that man [Adam] was created from earthly materials. Once he had been created the angels even mistook [Adam] for a divine being until they realised that man required sleep (Bereshit Rabbah 8,9). Not only that, G’d chose to have His residence on earth, sharing it with His creatures, preparing a house on earth for His “rest,” so to speak. It is obvious that G’d’s ‘home’ must be perfect and sacred. Prior to Adam’s sin G’d was as much at home on earth as He is in Heaven nowadays. All of this is part of the meaning of the words: ‘At the beginning G’d created heaven and earth.’ They shared many of the same properties as far as purity is concerned, etc. Isaiah 66,1 alluded to this when he said: “The heaven is My throne and the earth My footstool.” Evidently earth was an abode fit for G’d Himself. It is only the deeds performed by people on this ‘lower’ part of the universe that caused Tohu Vavohu to become an integral part of earth. The author understands the word hayatah as a development which followed creation of heaven and earth instead of as a condition which preceded the creative process. Ed.] The earth then became something tangible and opaque, hence dark.”

[4] See Bereishis 32:29, “And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

[5] See Bereishis 32:30.

[6] Bereishis 32:27.

[7] In blessing Yaakov, the Sa’ar of Esau acknowledged that the firstborn rights previously attached to Esau were now the legitimate property of Yaakov, in accordance with G-d’s will.

~ See also Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebhiktav, Vayishlach, Torah Ohr 13-15:
“There is [a]…mystical dimension to the love between Esau and Yaakov, or to love generally. Under certain conditions the feeling of love for something may transform evil into good and the קליפה, unworthy outer shell, may be transformed into something sacred. This is the very dimension which enables people to convert from paganism to Judaism. Our sages have connected this phenomenon with the גיד הנשה, when they explained Bereishis 32, 27 where Sama*l says: ‘Let me depart, for dawn has come.’Chulin 91a, has Yaakov ask the angel: ‘Are you a thief or a gambler that you shun daylight?’ Sama*l responded that he was an angel and that from the day he had been created he had not had an opportunity to sing G–d’s praises in the heavenly choir until that very day. Rashi interprets the word kubiestous in the Talmud to mean ‘soul snatcher.’ There is a profound meaning in Rashi’s comment, since souls are viewed as oppressed and held hostage by Sama*l. The Zohar in Parshat Mishpatim comments on this subject.”

[8] See Rashi to Genesis 49:33: “AND HE [Yaakov] EXPIRED — but the word death is not mentioned in his case, and our Teachers therefore said: (Taanit 5b) “Jacob, our father, is not dead”.

[9] The Gemara asks: From where do we derive that the name affects one’s life? Rabbi Eliezer said that the verse says: ‘Go, see the works of the Lord, who has made desolations [shamot] upon the earth’ (Psalms 46:9). Do not read the word as shamot, rather as shemot, names. The names given to people are, therefore, ‘the works of the Lord upon the earth.’” Berakhot 7b:16.

[10] See footnote [2], above.

[11] “As is known, Imma Ila’a comes from the gevurot of Atik Yomin, which are enclothed within Arich Anpin. (Zohar III Naso Idra Raba) They were revealed a long time prior to that of the chasadim. Furthermore, the gevurot are always revealed. Thus, anyone who is from the second level of Cain [the soul root from which Esau springs] can rise from level to level – from gevura to gevura, until the gevurot of Atik Yomin, and draw from there.
“This is not the case with Abel [the soul root of Yaakov], who is from the chasadim that were revealed later, and which are usually closed off with very little revelation. This is the reason for what is written in Bamidbar Rabba: (19:6) ‘Rebbi Chonya said, ‘His eye saw every precious thing’ (Job 28:10) – This is Rabbi Akiva, and things that were not revealed to Moses were revealed to Rabbi Akiva.’
“This is also what is written in Otiyot d’Rebbi Akiva, ‘Moses said to G‑d regarding Rabbi Akiva, ‘You have someone like this land You want to give the Torah through me?’ Moses was very disturbed when he saw the mazel of Rabbi Akiva, that he would learn something from every point (of the letter-crowns). Something similar to this is mentioned in Mesechet Menachot (39a);
…when Moses went up, he found The Holy One blessed be He tying crowns to the letters.
“The reason is because Rabbi Akiva was able to grasp more than Moses, since he was from Cain [the soul root of Esau], whereas Moses was from Abel [the soul root of Yaakov]. This is also the reason for what is mentioned in Mesechet Menachot, where it says that when Moses went up, he found The Holy One blessed be He tying crowns to the letters. ‘He said to Him, ‘Who is causing You to do this?’\’1 He answered him, ‘In the future a righteous person will live, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. And he will learn mounds and mounds of paths from each crown’.”
“This is because someone who is from Abel [Yaakov[ can only understand until the crowns of the letters, which are the tagin – and no more. This is what it means that he found Him tying crowns to the letters. (Tying and bringing in the levels that Moses was able to perceive.) However, someone who comes from the root of the second level of Cain [the soul root of Esau] can grasp even the ta’amim [Torah cantillations] or more. After that, Moses was able to understand everything, as a result of his awesome deeds. (Even the level of ta’amim.)
“He acquired the levels of Rabbi Akiva through his righteousness. This teaches that a person can through merits ascend to attain things that are intrinsically above his soul root. Also, we learn out that G‑d shows to a person things that He wants him to reach in order to spark the soul to yearn. and strive for them.” Sha’ar HaGilgulim of the Arizal by R. Chaim Vital Calabrese, Chapter 35, Section 4.
“It is known that the N’HY [nefesh, hod, yesod] of Imma, which are enclothed within Zeir Anpin until the chest, and within which are the mochin of Imma, are covered only once. Therefore, the ‘lights’ that emanate from there are large and give off much light, and the light of the souls that come from there is very great and revealed.
“…[S]ouls that are from the revealed chasadim or revealed gevurot are greater…Thus, souls that are from the revealed chasadim or revealed gevurot are greater than souls that are from a covered place, even though the latter may be in a higher position. This is the secret of what the Talmud writes, “You saw an upside down world – where up is down and down is up”.
“Another reason is that Abba only emanates light through the chesed and gevurah of Imma, for that is the path it goes. Therefore, they are greater and emanate more. Another reason: The gevurot are first to go out through yesod, which is why Cain was the firstborn, in the secret of, ‘A valorous woman is a crown for her husband” (Proverbs 12:4) – gevura is feminine and chesed is masculine.” Sefaria Source Sheet On Vayikra, Parashas Vayishlach, by William Shechter, From Torah Or by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, with Explanation and Commentary by Rabbi Gedaliah Potash and William Schecter MD, dated December 2, 2023.
~ “This whole piece revolves around the key verse that seemed to be brought only in passing, ‘A woman of valor is the crown of her husband”. The underlying theme relates to the very foundations of genesis. As the Rabbis teach, “At first thought, creation was to come with the quality of din. He saw that the world could not so endure. He (therefore) attached it to the quality of mercy”. (Midrash)
“As mentioned, even though the world was made for the sake of G‑d wanting to give love and goodness, the highest expression comes about through din – when people live up to the highest standard. ‘However, G-d saw that too intense a degree of din would be counter-productive and accordingly, He made the world and runs it from a combo of the two. However, an underlying movement towards the original thought of din is programmed into the system of the universe and things will eventually get there.
“This is why there are always a handful of individuals who embody the original din plateau in every generation. Rabbi Akiva is their archetype role model.” “Souls From The Second Level Of Cain,” translation and commentary by Perets Auerbach, Yitzchok Bar Chaim, And Shabtai Teicher.

[12] Ibid. Esau is from the Kayin root.

[12a] Ibid.

[13] “Another explanation of the verse, ‘and his hand took hold”‘is that Jacob could not be separated from him entirely, so his hand held the heel of Esau. His hand is the moon whose light was darkened because he held Esau’s heel. Therefore, Jacob needed to be clever with him, to push him down, so he would cleave to his place.” Zohar, Toldot 4:27.

[14] “A Roman Matron asked Rabbi Yossi Ben Chalafta: ‘Why did Esau come out first?’ Said he to her: ‘If you insert two pearls into a tube, would not the one you inserted last come out first? So, too, the seed of Yaakov came down.'” Bereishis Rabbah.
The Alshich explains this principle with a penetrating example from agriculture:
“The husk is formed before the fruit.[2]Night precedes day, and the temporal world – which Esau took as his portion – precedes the World to Come. Thus, the name ‘Esau’ is conjugated in the present tense (‘ready-made’); whereas ‘Yaakov’ (‘will follow’) indicates the future. But what comes last in actuality is primary in intent and essence.”

[15] Cf. Talmud and Zohar.

[16] See footnote [11].

[17] “Then you are to say to Pharaoh: Thus says YKVK, My son, My firstborn, is Israel! * Shemot 4:22.

[18] “‘Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

[19] “Rabbi Shimon son of Yochai said ‘I am amazed at how the fathers of the world, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, were divided on the creation of the heavens and the earth, I would say to both of them that they were not created, but were like a stew pot and like its lid, as it is said ‘I call unto them, they stood up together’ (Isaiah 48: 13)’. Said Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Shimon ‘if it is according to the opinion of my father, why in one place does the earth precede the heavens and in the other place the heavens precede the earth? This teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal). In every place Abraham precedes Isaac and Jacob, and in one place it says “and I will remember my covenant with Jacob” (Leviticus 26:42); this teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal). In every place Moses precedes Aaron, and it one place it says “That is Aaron and Moses” (Exodus 6:26); this teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal). In every place Joshua precedes Caleb, and in one place it says ‘except for Caleb the son of Jephuneh the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun’ (Numbers 14:30); this teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal). In every place the turtle-dove precedes the young pigeons and in one place, it says “and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove for a sin offering” (Leviticus 12:6); this teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal). And in every place the respect for a father precedes that of a mother, and in one place it says ‘You shall fear every man his mother, and his father’ (Leviticus 19:3); this teaches that they both have weight on either side (are equal).” But the sages said: ‘the father precedes the mother because he and his mother are obliged to honor his father.’ In every place the creation of the heaven precedes the earth, and in one place it says ‘In the day that the Hashem God made earth and heaven’ (Genesis 2:4); this tells us that they both have weight on either side (are equal)'”. Zohar.

About the Author
Jewish Mystic.