The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Kislev 13, 5767/December 4, 2006

"And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."
(Genesis 32:25)

Fighting to Remain Humble

After twenty long years in exile, Yaakov Avinu - our forefather Jacob - was about to reenter the land of Israel, and confront his brother Esau, from whom he had fled for his life, those many years ago. At this crucial point in his journey, we are told that, after sending his children and their mothers across the river Yabbok, he tarried the night, and remained alone. It was there in the night that a man appeared, and proceeded to engage Yaakov in mortal combat. Our sages teach us that this "man" was actually an angel. Furthermore, he was the guardian angel of Yaakov's brother Esau.

Is the Torah engaging here in foreshadowing? Perhaps this is a literary device to enhance the dramatic tension? Of course the answer to these questions is no, for the Torah is to teach and not to entertain. We can begin to look for the answer in the words Yaakov said to G-d just prior to separating from his family: "I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which You have shown unto Your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps." (ibid 32:11) The Hebrew word translated as "I am not worthy," is katan-ti - literally, "I have been small." Yaakov, in his prayer to HaShem, is expressing his humility. Twenty years of exile, living with and working for Lavan, his greedy and jealous father-in-law, in a society where people are judged by their wealth, and where keeping up with, and getting ahead of the Jones' is the social code, it seems remarkable that Yaakov maintained his sense of perspective, his humility before G-d. All the more so, when one considers the success with which Yaakov's endeavors had been blessed, continually increasing his father-in-law's flock. Yet, Yaakov's prayer as he prepared for the encounter with Esau's angel, seems to indicate that he remains troubled by his own past relationship with Esau. Something is greatly bothering Yaakov as he prepares to meet Esau, and not only the safety of his family. Yaakov wants to "come clean" with Esau, and in the struggle with Esau's angel he prevails, proving himself up to the task, and setting the stage for the ominous reunion.

The following morning Yaakov is well prepared for Esau, as he bows down seven times before his brother. They embrace and kiss. The climax of their confrontation comes with the following exchange:

'"What did you have to do with that whole camp that came to greet me?' asked [Esau]. 'It was to gain favor in your eyes,' replied [Yaakov]. 'I have plenty, my brother,' said Esau. 'Let what is yours remain yours.' 'Please! No!' said Yaakov. 'If I have gained favor with you, please accept this gift from me. After all, seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine, you have received me so favorably. Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you. G-d has been kind to me, and I have all [I need].' [Yaakov thus] urged him, and [Esau finally] took it." (ibid 33:9-11)

"I have plenty, my brother," Esau boasts. "G-d has been kind to me, and I have all [I need]," Yaakov humbly replies. The original Hebrew states it clearly. Esau says, "I've got rav," meaning, I have a lot, I have many possessions, I am a man of stature. Yaakov's reply, "I have all I need," in Hebrew, yesh li kol, is an expression of humility and satisfaction with one's lot... as if to say, "whatever I have, whatever G-d has given me, is exactly what I need.'" Esau's self-appraisal reveals the inherent dissatisfaction of the materialistic life: One can possess a lot, but one derives no fulfillment from the multitude of things with which he surrounds himself. Esau is also known in Torah by the name Edom, a name used by our sages to denote the Jewish exile of the past two thousand years. The latest, and perhaps most pernicious form of this exile of Edom may well be what is known as consumerism: man is judged, (and judges himself), not by his deeds, but by what he owns, and by what he doesn't own. In the exile of consumerism, even our bodies become mere possessions and status symbols. But never being able to acquire enough, we are never at peace with ourselves. We are strangers to our own inner true, and as such, are unable to serve G-d as we are intended.

For twenty years, Yaakov avinu was immersed in such a materialistic society. He possessed the inner fortitude to break away from Lavan, when called upon by G-d. Yet still he questioned his own conviction as he approached his twin - the materialistic and earth-bound Esau. Indeed, one level of understanding is that it was with his own inner Esau that he wrestled through the night, until finally, demanding and receiving the heavenly blessing he sought, he emerged victorious - over his own self-doubt. Always humble before G-d, he now is humble before his brother: "G-d has been kind to me, and I have all [I need]." G-d's blessing has released Yaakov of earthly desires. Returning now to the land of his birth, he is free, truly free, to serve G-d:

"And Yaakov came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. And he bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel, (G-d-is-Israel's-L-rd)." (ibid 33:18-20)

Join Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven on this week's Temple Talk, as they discuss the Torah readings of Vayetze and Vayishlach, the confrontation between Yaakov and Esau, the confrontation between Israel and the Hellenists, and much more.

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