Last week, in Parasha Vayetze, Jacob (Yaacov) fled his home to escape his twin brother Esau’s wrath and went to Charan where his mother’s brother, Laban, lived.
On his way, God appeared to him in a dream in which he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven. On the ladder were angels ascending and descending. At its top, overseeing all, was the Lord, who renewed the Abrahamic covenant with Jacob.
In Charan, Jacob worked for 14 years in exchange for his wives Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters. He worked another six for his own flocks.
In the end, he managed, with great difficulty, to free himself from an unfair situation in which Laban had changed Jacob’s wages 10 times.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob returns to his ancestral home in the Holy Land with his wives, children and possessions after serving his conniving uncle for 20 years.
The title of this week’s Parasha, Vayishlach, comes from its opening verse, “Yaacov sent [vayishlach],” which refers to his sending malachim (messengers) to his brother Esau.
“Jacob sent [Vayishlach Yaacov] messengers [malachim] ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.” (Genesis 32:3)
This Hebrew word malachim can also mean angels, which God sends forth as messengers on earth to do His will.
Over 20 years have passed since the brothers last saw one another.
Before leaving home, Jacob had tricked his blind father into imparting the firstborn’s blessing to him by pretending to be Esau.
Jacob is worried that Esau is still angry about losing his blessing.
And it seems that Jacob is correct.
The messengers that Jacob sent out return to the camp, telling him that Esau is on his way with 400 armed men.
A Winning Strategy
Since Esau seems intent on killing him, Jacob devises a three-pronged strategy of prayer, tact and diplomacy, as well as preparation for war.
Jacob humbly seeks God in prayer and teshuvah (repentance), admitting that he is unworthy of the kindness and faithfulness that God has shown to him by pouring out His blessing of family and wealth.
He also admits he is afraid of his brother, but he asks God to save him, reminding Him of His promises (Genesis 32:9–12):
“But You have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’” (Genesis 32:12)
Jacob then sends a series of gifts to his brother in the form of herds of goats, camels, cows and donkeys.
The herds are placed in the hands of his servants who are provided with a strategic script to speak and sequence for the delivery of the herds that will hopefully disarm Esau’s wrath (Genesis 32:16–20).
Jacob also divides up his family and possessions into two camps to ensure the survival of at least some of them and sends them across the Jabbok River, an eastern tributary of the Jordan River.
“In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.’” (Genesis 32:7–8)
Wrestling with God
Finding himself alone that night, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious man (ish איש)until daybreak.
When the “man” cannot overpower Jacob, He touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh so that it is strained. The angel asks Jacob to let him go, but Jacob wants something first—a blessing.
“I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26)
Indeed, this man does bless him and changes his name from Jacob to Yisrael (Israel).
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:28)
Through this all-night wrestling match, Jacob comes face to face with the Divine. Because of that, Jacob calls the place Peniel, which means face of God.
“For I have seen God (Elohim) face to face, and My soul is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30)
We can understand from this wrestling match, that some struggles have a supernatural dimension.
And while we may at times wrestle with God and His messengers, more often we wrestle with evil.
The book of Ephesians highlights this concept, telling us to be strong in the Lord’s power since we wrestle evil spiritual forces.