In this week’s portion we read about Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan. As he nears the land of Seir, the territory allotted to his brother Esau, he sends messengers before him to entreat his brother for favor. When the messengers return they tell Jacob, “We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Upon hearing this report it says, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” Esau, his brother, who had vowed revenge for stealing his blessing some 20+ years earlier, was coming to meet him with a mini-army. Jacob probably remembered the stories of how Abraham, his grandfather, had defeated 4 kings and their armies with only 318 men. How much more could Esau do with 400? After Jacob divides his camps in two, it says “Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.” According to Rashi, the phrase “Jacob was left alone,” tells us that Jacob had gone back to retrieve some small and inexpensive utensils. However, Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam says of this passage that; Jacob, fearing a confrontation with Esau, wanted to run away. God sent an Angel to wrestle with him in order for him to face his fears and keep him from fleeing.
Which interpretation is right? I believe both could be viewed as true. Jacob used the excuse of finding some missing utensils as an opportunity to escape his problems. Jacob had already fled from his brother Esau once before; why not see if it will work again?
Jacob wanted to run, but this time Heaven intervened. Jacob wrestled for an entire night with a character who is described in the Torah only as “a man.” However, as the dawn breaks this “character” blesses Jacob and says, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
The name Israel is composed of two Hebrew words. “Yashar—Upright” and “El—God” the combination is “Upright with God.” Jacob had spent his entire life struggling in his relationships with people. Laban, Esau, and Isaac were all difficult relatives for Jacob. But during that night’s wrestling match God showed him that he could face up to his fears and overcome them. If Jacob could wrestle with Heaven and find peace, surely nothing on earth could make him afraid. And it was true, Jacob walked with a limp from that day forward, but he knew he had been touched by heaven, and in that way, he could never walk the same again.