Parashas Vayishlach begins with Yaakov anticipating an attack from his brother Eisav and preparing for this confrontation in three ways. First, Yaakov sends Eisav gifts of goats, ewes, rams and camels, hoping that this elaborate gesture will placate his brother’s jealousy and hatred. Yaakov goes so far as to specify the exact words of greetings his messengers are to say to Eisav on his behalf. Next, Yaakov prays. He cries out to G-d, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav, for I am afraid, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.” Last, Yaakov sends half his family across the Yabbok River reasoning that “if Eisav comes to one camp and smites it, the camp that is left will escape.” Yaakov does not count on goodwill or his Divine merits to deliver him. In addition to praying and placating, he splits the camp. He does everything in his power to save his children and family.
After making these arrangements, “Yaakov was left alone and wrestled with a man there until the break of dawn.” The Midrash identifies this “man” as the archangel of Eisav, who dislocates Yaakov’s right thigh in the scuffle. The Talmudic Sage Rav Yehoshua ben Levi states that this cosmic confrontation between Yaakov and the angel of Eisav kicked up a dust storm that reached all the way up to the Divine throne. How did this angel appear to Yaakov? Rav Shmuel ben Nachman, explains that he appeared in the guise of a heathen. The halacha states that a Jew who is joined by a heathen on the road should make sure that the heathen is to his right side, so that if the heathen attacks him, the Jew will be able to ward him off with his stronger hand. Hence, Yaakov’s right side was closest to the angel and his right hip was dislocated by him. Rav Shmuel ben Acha, recording the opinion of Rabba ben Ulla, disagrees. The angel appeared to Yaakov in the guise of a scholar, he maintains. The law is that whoever walks to the right of his teacher is considered ignorant. Hence, Yaakov-having assumed the man was a scholar-positioned himself to the left of the angel.
What impelled our Sages to describe the appearance of this angel? What difference does it make? What lesson does it impart to us, the grandchildren of Yaakov? Historically, Jews have had to contend with two very different types of threats to our survival. One is the brute force of a heathen, when our enemies seek to wrestle us to the ground. In such moments, we must defend ourselves to protect Jewish lives. At other times, however, our enemies threaten us not with physical attacks, but with spiritual ones. These bombardments come from so-called enlightened individuals, who attack the beliefs and practices of Torah Judaism with sarcasm and ridicule. They kick up a storm of confusion and doubt in the minds of the children of Yaakov. This is the other face of Eisav, the one that poses as a scholar and attempts to wrestle the Jew, intellectually and emotionally, to the ground.
We, Yaakov’s descendants, have wrestled and continue to wrestle with both of these dangers – from without and from within – through the long, dark night of exile. Our response, like that of our forefather Yaakov, must be threefold. We must take the high road and, while maintaining our integrity and principles, make appropriate gestures toward Eisav. At the same time, we must strategize within our own camp to fend off the attacks – both overt and insidious – of secular society. We do not live in a vacuum. We exist in this world and in its cultures. But we must nevertheless maintain our unique identity and treasure our unique values. We must “split the camp” and live in this world while simultaneously remaining apart. And we must pray. We must pray for ourselves and for our children, for our community and for the greater community of Klal Yisrael, for those who observe and for those who do not yet observe. Ultimately, our fate rests in the Hands of our Creator, and we must tum to Him to bring an end to our exile and redeem us, finally and completely, from all the angels of Eisav.
Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht
Beth Israel Synagogue in Westport-Norwalk, Connecticut