This week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, tells of Yaakov’s encounter with his brother Esov, after they spent more than thirty years apart. Yaakov’s messenger angels alert him that his brother is on the warpath, and has four hundred men with him. Yaakov’s reaction is both wise and telling. He accepts that Esov is on the warpath, and prepares accordingly; this reflects his ability to face difficulties. He also prays, because he is a pious, G-d-fearing man, and finally he prepares a gift to appease Esov, hoping that he can avoid endangering his family. Yaakov’s wisdom is made obvious here, but what happens next in the Parsha makes him even more relevant to our everyday lives- despite the miraculous nature of the incident.
Yaakov’s family and possessions cross the Yabbok river, but, mysteriously, Yaakov himself stays behind. There, he encounters the ‘Prince of Esov’, who reperesents Esov’s spirit- a mysterious, shadowy figure, with whom he wrestles until daybreak, dislocating his hip in the struggle. The angel asks Yaakov to let him go as the sun rises, but Yaakov refuses until he is given a blessing. The angel then says, ”Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Yisroel, for you have contended with an angel of G‑d and with men, and you have prevailed”.
Yaakov’s struggle, although it occurs in a setting which most of us can never relate to, is actually intertwined with the struggles that we all face in our lives. Nachmanides tells us, ”Yaakov’s struggle with Esov’s angel represents the physical suffering of galus. When the angel of Esov injured Jacob’s hip-joint, he injured his righteous descendants. In the words of the Midrash, “This is the generation of the shmad”—the cruel tortures inflicted by the Romans in Mishnaic times (1st and 2nd century CE) in their effort to eradicate the faith of Israel”. Nachmanides certainly throws light upon one of the most confusing elements of Parshas Vayishlach, which is an extremely complex Parsha. But what about our day to day lives? How does Yaakov’s struggle relate to our struggles?
Let’s examine Yaakov’s struggle. He encountered a strange force which he did not recognise; he fought it; he was painfuly injured; and yet, he prevailed. After he prevailed over the spirit, he had blessings bestowed upon him. Rewards for his actions. Does that not sound familiar? Often, we come up against things we don’t understand. The loss of someone dear, someone close to us; an unexplained illness; the failure of a brilliant business. No matter how small or great, these struggles are overwhelming. Confusing. Seemingly… impossible.
When we try to fight back, when we try to overcome what is attacking us- be it a bereavement or illness, or even another person, we don’t always succeed. Sometimes the odds are against us, or sometimes external factors intervene. We get injured, both physically and spiritually. And yet, we carry on. Even if your career is going nowhere, and suffers blow after blow, you prevail. Even if your illness takes a turn for the worse, you prevail. Even as your marriage is on the rocks, you prevail. And eventually- not always, but often- you succeed. Despite the pain, despite the ‘scars’, you succeeded. And the reward? Brochos. Blessings. Strength. A renewed belief in one’s self. Truly, Parshas Vayishlach teaches us about life’s struggles through Yaakov’s encounter with Esov’s spirit, and his eventual triumph.