Sunday, December 23, 2007

Parashas Vayishlach

Vayomer shalcheini ki ala hashachar, vayomer lo ashalechicha ki im berachtani. Vayomer elav ma shme’cha, vayomer Yaakov. Vayomer lo Yaakov ye’amer od shmecha ki im Yisrael [Bereishis 32:27-29] And he [the angel] said: “Release me for the dawn has risen,” and he [Yaakov] said: “I will not release you until you bless me. And he [the angel] asked: “What is your name?” and he [Yaakov] responds: “Yaakov.” And he [the angel] said: “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, rather it shall be Yisrael.”

There are a number of questions that immediately arise. The angel in question here is saro shel Esav - Esav’s guiding angel, the supernatural force representing the interests of Esav in the celestial courts. He, upon seeing Yaakov return from Lavan’s home to Eretz Canaan ready to begin the fulfillment of Yitzchak’s blessing to Yaakov, chooses the appropriate moment to wage war. He is unsuccessful for the most part [although he does seriously injure Yaakov causing us to forego filet mignon because of the difficulty of removing the gid hanasheh from the hindquarters] and at dawn they have battled to a standstill. Yaakov refuses to release the angel until the latter blesses him. Strange, why would Yaakov want and/or need a blessing from the angel representing Esav? Imagine someone trying to mug you. You fight him off and then prevent him from getting away, not because you want to continue fighting, not because you want to hand him over to the authorities, but because you want him to bless you! The Midrash explains that Yaakov wanted the angel to agree - in Esav’s name - that he was the rightful possessor of the blessings of Yitzchak; i.e., that Esav would no longer contend that Yaakov had taken this berachah illegally. Nonetheless, it would seem that Yaakov was asking for more than a simple cease fire with Esav.

The angel in response asks Yaakov, “What is your name?” Again, a strange question. He’s saro shel Esav, a ministering angel who desparately needs to be released because his turn has come to sing G-d’s praises, not some random hoodlum lurking in dark alleys waiting for some nameless victim to come by. How could he not know Yaakov’s name?

When Yaakov informs him, the angel responds: “your name shall no longer be Yaakov.” The Hebrew construct in the passuk is almost impossible to translate into readable English. In my translation above I omitted the word ye’amer which literally means that the angel informed Yaakov that his name would no longer be “said” as Yaakov in the future. While it is true that the name was actually only changed later and not at this juncture; the usual form for introducing a name is koreh - to call; hence, the passuk should have said yikareh - will be called - rather than ye’amer - will be said.

The fact that the angel informs Yaakov of what will happen would not seem to be an adequate response to Yaakov’s condition for releasing him. Moreover, in what sense does an angelic prophecy serve as a blessing?

As we have noted over the past two weeks, the name that one is given is a reflection of a person’s essence [e.g., Naval sh’mo u’kishmo kein hu]. When Yaakov was given his name, it reflected his esssence - see the quote from S’forno in parashat Toldos that Yaakov means that he is destined to stay the distance. I would conjecture that a name has meaning in all of its translations; i.e., no matter what the source of the name Yaakov, all of the connotations of that name are reflected in the person who bears it. Esav’s statement [27:36] would seem to suggest that Yaakov’s name came from the fact that he had interceded in matters rather than allowing nature to run its course. This was true of his relationship with Esav where he had taken the bechorah as well as birkat Yitzchak so as to prevent it from being misused. It was also true of his relationship with Lavan where he had manipulated the birth of the spotted sheep.

Upon his return to Eretz Canaan, Yaakov would have been content to refrain from this activist role - see Midrash to the first passuk in parashas Vayeshev. Indeed, when his daughter Dinah is taken by Shechem and Chamor, Yaakov decries the reaction of Shimon and Levi even though their response to him when asked why they had killed the two brings nothing but silence from Yaakov, indicating that their actions were not incorrest.

When Yaakov finally has a few moments alone and the time to try to interpret all that has occurred since he left his family, he is confronted by an angel. The appearance of the angel must have made Yaakov realize that he would not be allowed to sit back and enjoy the nachas from his children and grandchildren. He enters the fray and asks for a berachah, some substantiation that this battle has meaning. The angel asks him a rhetorical question: “What is your name?”; i.e., how do you see yourself. Yaakov answers that he thinks that his name Yaakov indicates who he is. The angel answers that your name may have the same letters, but what it says about you [ye’amer] has now changed. Your return from Charan marks the emergence of a new man on the scene; no longer Yaakov the one who reacts [Yaakov as in ekev - as a result of] who hangs onto Esav’s heel rather than emerging first. You are about to become Yisrael - the sar of Hashem. Your children are destined to shape history, to receive G-d’s word at Sinai and to serve as His messengers to all people. This is a new Yaakov emerging, one who also bears the name Yisrael. [Note that unlike Avraham who may not be referred to as Avram once his name has been changed, the names Yaakov and Yisrael are often interchanged suggesting that the quality of Yisrael was already inherent in Yaakov.]

There is a powerful lesson here. Man has no predestined limitations. He can spend his life in a self woven cocoon or he can break out of his restraints and find new talents and resources within himself that can better himself and those around him.

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