Parshat Vayishlach: “The Sun Rose for Yaakov”

“And the sun rose for him as he passed Pnu’el and he was limping on his hip.” (Beresheit 32:32)

Is suffering bad? We tend to regard the answer as obvious. Of course, it is bad to suffer! However, it is not clear that this answer is completely correct. The lives of the Avot – the forefathers – included suffering and anguish. For example, Avraham endured ten trials. These trials were not pleasant experiences. Yet, it is clear that Hashem brought about these trials because He felt they were necessary. So, perhaps there is some positive element in suffering and struggle. Let us consider the issue more closely based upon an enigmatic statement of our Sages regarding this week’s parasha.

Yaakov returns to the home of his father. But, first he must encounter Esav. He knows that Esav’s anger has not abated. He fears the encounter. The night before his meeting with Esav, Yaakov battles with a man. Our Sages explain that this man was an angel representing Esav.[1] The angel realizes that he cannot overcome Yaakov and he strikes him on the hip. Yaakov succeeds in subduing his adversary but is injured. As a result of this injury, Yaakov was limping the following morning as he passes Pnu’el.

Our pasuk tells us that in the morning, the sun rose for Yaakov. This is a difficult phrase to understand. The sun rises on a daily basis. It does not rise for a particular individual. What does the pasuk mean in stating that the sun rose for Yaakov? There is a parallel phrase used by the Torah at the beginning of the previous parasha – Parshat VaYetze. The Torah tells us that Yaakov arrived at a place and he spent the night there because the sun had set. Rashi points out that the pasuk is describing a relationship between two events – the setting of the sun, and Yaakov’s decision to spend the night at this place. However, in the pasuk, the events are reversed. Rather than stating that the sun had set and, therefore, Yaakov decided to spend the night in this place. The Torah first tells us that Yaakov decided to spend the night, and then it tells us that the sun had set. Why does the Torah reverse the order? Our Sages respond that the sun was not due to set at that moment. But, as Yaakov arrived at this place, the sun set prematurely. This was done in order to cause Yaakov to pass the night at this special place.[2]

Based on this parallel, our Sages explain that just as the sun set prematurely for Yaakov in Parshat VaYetze, the sun rose early for him in our pasuk in order to comfort him from his injury.[3] In other words, in each instance, the sun departed from its usual cycle on behalf of Yaakov.

This is an amazing interpretation of the two passages. The most obvious problem with this interpretation is that our Sages are suggesting that two rather remarkable miracles were performed on Yaakov’s behalf. Yet, the Torah only provides a veiled reference to these miracles. We would expect miracles of this magnitude to be treated by the Torah more clearly and thoroughly. Furthermore, the proposition that Hashem interfered with the movement of the sun on Yaakov’s behalf contradicts anther statement of the Sages. They teach us that Hashem only interfered with the travel of the sun on three occasions. Yaakov’s experiences are not included among these three.[4] This suggests that the Sages’ statement that Hashem caused the sun to set early and rise early for Yaakov is not intended to be taken literally. Instead, it is a metaphor. However, this only adds to our difficulties – for now we must try to understand the meaning of the metaphor.

In order to unravel the meaning of the metaphor, let us begin with Parshat VaYislach. Sefer HaChinuch explains that Yaakov’s conflict with the angel represents Bnai Yisrael’s struggle with the descendants of Esav. In this struggle, the descendants of Esav will not succeed in destroying Bnai Israel. However, they will be able to harm Bnai Yisrael. The harm that Esav’s descendants will inflict upon Bnai Yisrael is represented by the injury Yaakov experiences. The rising of the sun represents the coming of Moshiach. The Messianic era will eventually arrive and Yaakov will be healed from the injury caused by Esav’s descendants.[5]

If we accept this interpretation of Yaakov’s struggle with the angel and the rising of the sun, we can also understand the meaning of Hashem causing the sun to rise early. The Sages maintained that the redemption of Bnai Yisrael is not to be understood as a natural phenomenon. Throughout history, nations rise to power and then are overshadowed by new, emerging powers. We are not to understand the ascent of Bnai Yisrael as another iteration of this historical pattern. Instead, we are told that Hashem will interfere with the travel of the sun in order for it to shine for Yaakov. The redemption of Bnai Yisrael will be a result of the direct intervention of Hashem.

We can now use this interpretation to understand the meaning of the sun setting early for Yaakov during his journey to Haran. Once we accept that the rising of the sun represents redemption, it seems likely that the setting of the sun and the advent of darkness represent the opposite phenomenon – the experience of exile and suffering. The implication of this interpretation is that sometimes Hashem causes the sun to set on people, or on Bnai Yisrael. In other words, He initiates a period of exile or struggle.

This is difficult to understand. We can easily accept that Hashem will interfere with the normal course of history in order to redeem His people. But, why would Hashem cause the innocent Yaakov or His people to suffer and struggle? Of course, we know that Hashem may bring about suffering as punishment and chastisement. But, in this incident, Yaakov is brought into darkness. What sin had Yaakov committed? The implication is that even though Yaakov was innocent of wrongdoing, Hashem brought darkness upon him. This is intended to communicate a message. Suffering has other purposes! What are these mysterious purposes?

Before attempting to answer this question, let us consider Yaakov’s situation more closely. In Yaakov’s case, what was the impact of the early setting of the sun? Because Yaakov entered into darkness, he went to sleep and had a dream. The dream contained an important prophecy. Hashem told Yaakov that the promises that He had made to Avraham and Yitzchak would be fulfilled through him. The message of the incident seems to be that there are some truths that can only emerge in the darkness. Just as light illuminates, so, too, darkness can be revealing. Suffering can uncover deep truths that cannot be recognized when we are happy and content. What are these truths?

Let us consider a related issue. Our Sages did not deny that the wicked can experience happiness. Instead, they explained that both the righteous and the wicked experience happiness in life. However, their experiences with happiness are opposite of one another. The righteous first experience suffering. This suffering later gives way to happiness. The wicked begin life in happiness, but end it in misery.[6] Why do they have opposite experiences?

Let us begin by understanding the experience of the wicked person. The wicked person believes that one can achieve happiness through indulgence of material and evil desires. At first, this person does experience a modicum of happiness. When frustrated, this person assumes that the solution lies in a more determined devotion to self-indulgence. However, reality can only be held off so long. As time passes, the wicked person begins to recognize that his or her happiness has been fleeting and meaningless. The wicked person’s life ends in despondency and emptiness.

The righteous are not born with all of the answers and the innate ability to always follow the truth. Instead, the life of the righteous person begins as a struggle. This person must abandon all of the falsehoods that guide others. The righteous person must abandon the hope that happiness can be secured by material and instinctual pursuits. This person must do battle and struggle with the limits and biases of one’s own personality and prejudices in search for the truth and in devotion to the Torah. It is a difficult struggle. But, the outcome of this journey is that the righteous person achieves true, meaningful happiness. In short, both the righteous and wicked are on journeys. The wicked person is traveling on the road to despondency. The righteous travels along the difficult path to the happiness that comes from living according to the truth of the Torah.

But, let us consider the tribulations of the righteous more carefully. Why is the path towards Torah devotion and truth so difficult? Of course, one reason is that one must overcome one’s preconceptions and instincts. However, there is another reason. Some truths about ourselves, who we are and our real values only emerge under stress. We learn about ourselves when we are tested. And, sometimes the most revealing and important tests are the most challenging. When we lose a loved one, experience illness or other setbacks, we are tested. In our reactions to these challenges, we learn about ourselves. We discover strengths and uncover weaknesses we must address. Without these tests, we would not truly know ourselves. So, these challenges and the suffering that they engender are catalysts for personal growth. Without these catalysts, this growth cannot take place.

This seems to be the meaning of the sun setting early on Yaakov. Only when challenged by darkness could Yaakov come to recognize certain truths. Hashem brought Yaakov into this darkness in order to help Yaakov grow. So, returning to our original question, suffering is not always bad. Sometimes, whether suffering will be positive or negative depends on our reaction. If we treat misfortune as a challenge and use it as a catalyst for personal growth, then we can create light within the darkness. We can grow from our challenges.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:25.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:11.

[3] Mesechet Chullin 91b, See Rashi.

[4] Mesechet Taanit 20a.

[5] Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 3.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:29.