The Conflict of Appeasement
This week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob’s preparation for his confrontation with Esau. He has just returned from years in the home of his uncle Laban, he has four wives and 12 children, a great deal of sheep and other animals, but he remains concerned as to whether Esau is still intent on killing him. He prepares for war, but, concurrently, sends messengers with gifts and prays to G-d for salvation.
Interestingly, the episode is ripe with messengers and angels. And most interestingly, the messengers are sometimes referred to as angels (Genesis 32:4) and the angels are sometimes referred to as men (Genesis 32:25). It is the angel that intrigues me most.
Jacob has successfully transferred his entire entourage across the River Yabok and is the only remaining one on the eastern side of the river. At that moment, a “man” accosts him and fights with him all night long. When the “man” realizes he will never defeat Jacob, he injures Jacob’s thigh and then begs Jacob to release him. Jacob, realizing at this point that the man is actually an angel, demands a blessing. The angel then informs Jacob that his name will be changed to Israel.
The changing of a name is something that we have seen before, when G-d changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. In both cases, G-d adds letters to their names that are often used as abbreviations for G-d’s name and, in changing their names, identifies them with special roles. Abraham will be the father of all nations and, indeed, is the first patriarch of the Jewish people.
Isaac’s name is not changed, but G-d is the one who commands his name at birth (Genesis 17:19). Jacob’s new name, Israel, also contains G-d’s name (El) and the reason given for his name is that he has fought with gods and with people and has prevailed.
The Midrash explains that the angel who confronts Jacob is actually the angel of Esau, his spiritual representative. The conflict between Jacob and Esau is represented in the spiritual realm as the struggle between Jacob and the angel, which Jacob wins. Jacob then goes on to prevail in the natural, as well, when Esau accepts Jacob’s offer of peace. Esau also accepts Jacob as the heir to Canaan and the blessings of Abraham, and returns to his own home in Seir. (Genesis 33:16)
Each one of the patriarchs are ordinary, though righteous people who are selected by G-d to fulfill a special role in the development of the Jewish people. They are responsible for birthing the nation that will be G-d’s chosen people and that will serve G-d and fulfill His commandments. When G-d names each of them, His puts His stamp upon them and appoints them to their leadership role.
As Jacob returns from Laban, as the father of the children who will become the Children of Israel, he is ready to be appointed to his patriarchal role. But first, he must prove his ability to defeat Esau. For Jacob is the last of the patriarchs and the only one whose entire progeny become the nation of Israel. Jacob and his children will face many enemies over the centuries, the prototype of which is Esau. There will be spiritual warfare involved as well. If Jacob can defeat his enemies, he will truly be fit to birth the nation of Israel. And Jacob’s preparations to defeat his brother mirror the elements that remain at our disposal for defeating our enemies, even today: war, prayer and gifts. Yes, we can be generous to our enemies if it will buy us peace. But not at the expense of our identity. Not at the expense of being Israel and of inheriting the blessings of Abraham, the nation of Israel and the Land of Israel. “And Esau returned that day on the way to Seir. And Jacob traveled to Succot… And Jacob arrived complete to the city of Shechem in the Land of Canaan.” (Genesis 33:16-18)
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office
Here is a more in-depth teaching on the Torah Portion Vayishlach