Parshat Vayishlach: What did Yaakov want from the angel?

“And Yaakov asked and said, “Tell me your name.” And he said, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.” (Beresheit 32:30)

Yaakov awaits his encounter with Esav. During the night he battles with a man. Our Sages explain that this man is an angel representing Esav. The angel cannot overcome Yaakov. He strikes Yaakov and dislodges his hip. The man asks Yaakov to release him. Yaakov insists that the angel first bless him. Yaakov then asks the angel to reveal his name. The angel responds that Yaakov has no need for this information. The man blesses Yaakov and is released.

Sefer HaChinuch explains that this encounter communicated a prophetic message. Yaakov’s descendants will experience exile. They will be persecuted by the descendants of Esav. Esav’s descendants will at times hurt the Jewish people. This is represented by the dislocating of Yaakov’s hip. However, they will not overcome Bnai Yisrael. Ultimately Yaakov’s descendants will triumph, just as Yaakov overcame Esav’s angle.[1]

Nachmanides agrees with Sefer HaChunuch’s interpretation of this encounter. He also explains additional elements of the incident. One issue Nachmanides discusses is the dialogue in our passage. What was Yaakov’s objective is seeking the angel’s name? Why did the angel withhold this information?

He explains that the angel told Yaakov that he had no use for this knowledge. Only Hashem can provide salvation to Yaakov and his children. If they call to this angel for help, he will not respond.[2]

Nachmanides comments are enigmatic. What help did Yaakov hope to secure from the angel? Did Yaakov actually believe that there is a refuge other than the Almighty?

Based on Sefer HaChinuch and Nachmanides’ interpretation of this event, we can understand these comments. Yaakov received a prophecy describing the future suffering of his descendants at the hand of Esav. He asked this angel to reveal his name. What is the meaning of this request? What does the name of the angel represent? In the Torah names are sometimes more than mere appellations. In some instances, an entity’s name describes its nature.[3] In our case, the name denotes the nature of the angel. Yaakov was asking the angel to reveal its nature. Yaakov wanted to understand the reasons and causes for Esav’s persecution of the Jewish people. What are the reasons for this hatred? How can Bnai Yisrael manipulate events to protect itself? These were the secrets Yaakov sought.

The angel understood Yaakov’s intention. He realized that Yaakov hoped to rescue his descendants from suffering. The angel responded that Yaakov’s plan cannot succeed. The fate of Bnai Yisrael solely rests in the hands of the Almighty. Esav is merely Hashem’s tool. His descendants can only turn to Hashem for salvation. They will not succeed in saving themselves through diplomacy or other manipulations.

This interpretation of Nachmanides’ position explains another odd comment. In the beginning of the parasha, Nachmanides explains that Yaakov’s encounter with Esav provides a model for future dealings with Esav’s descendants. We should study Yaakov’s strategy and apply it in our own times.[4] Latter, Nachmanides comments that Yaakov made one error in his dealings with Esav. He should not have alerted Esav to his approach. Instead, he should have quietly returned to his father’s home. He should not have contacted Esav. Through sending messengers to Esav, Yaakov awoke his brother’s jealously and hatred. Nachmanides further comments that the same error was repeated by the second Jewish commonwealth. Through entering into diplomatic relations with the Roman Empire, the nation embarked on the road leading to Roman conquest.[5]

Nachmanides comments may be true in retrospect. Perhaps, looking back in history we can identify the beginning of the fall of the second commonwealth. However, it seems unfair to criticize the leaders of that time for their decision to develop relations with the Roman Empire. Similarly, it seems overly critical to fault Yaakov for contacting Esav. Perhaps, Yaakov precipitated the confrontation with Esav. However, he could not know this! Based on the facts available he made the best decision!

We can answer these questions based upon Nachmanides’ interpretation of the dialogue between Yaakov and the angel. In that dialogue the angel explained to Yaakov that even the most well-considered plans would not save the Jewish nation from persecution. Only the Almighty can provide salvation. Nachmanides’ analysis of Yaakov’s error in greeting Esav and the fall of the second commonwealth illustrate this concept. In both cases sound judgment dictated initiating contact with a potential enemy. In both cases this sound judgment did not produce the desired outcome. Yaakov awoke Esav’s jealousy. The second commonwealth entered into a disastrous relationship. Nachmanides is not criticizing. He is illustrating the limits of our abilities to control our fate.

“And Esav ran to greet him. And he hugged him. And he fell upon his neck and he kissed him. And they cried.” (Beresheit 33:4)

Yaakov and Esav finally meet. Yaakov succeeds in appeasing Esav. Our pasuk describes Esav’s response to Yaakov. Esav hugs and kisses his brother.

In the actual text a series of dots appear over the term “and he kissed him.” It is generally agreed that these points indicate a secondary meaning within the phrase. There is a controversy as to the secondary meaning of the pasuk. Rashi offers two explanations. He comments that some Sages suggest that the notation indicates that the kiss was not completely sincere. Other Sages argue that Esav was genuine. However, the notation tells us that this behavior was exceptional and temporary. In general, Esav’s hatred of Yaakov remained undiminished.[6]

It seems that both opinions agree that the dots alert us to a need to qualify the overt message of the passage. They only differ on the specific qualification intended. But how do the points transmit the message that a qualification is needed? Gershonides provides a fascinating response to this question. He explains that dots were traditionally used by scribes to identify words to be erased. For example, if a scribe would find a mistake in a document, he would indicate the error with a series of dots. Latter the scribe would erase the mistake. Now the message of the dots is clearer. The term associated with the dots must be understood as in the passage and not in the passage. In other words, we must qualify the meaning of the term.[7]

The example of our pasuk serves to illustrate Gershonides’ interpretation. The term “and he kissed him” is accompanied by dots. This means that the Esav did not kiss Yaakov in the fullest sense. Something was lacking from Esav’s expression of love. It remains for the Sages only to determine the specific quality that was lacking.

“And Yaakov said to Shimon and Leyve,

“You have stained me through making me despicable to the people of the land – the Canaanites and the Prezites. And my people are few in number. And they will gather against me and strike me and destroy me and my household.” (Beresheit 34:30)

The prince Shechem kidnaps Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov. He loves Dinah and wishes to make her his wife. Yaakov’s sons devise a plan to rescue Dinah. They tell Shechem and his father Chamor that they cannot allow Dinah to marry an uncircumcised man. However if Shechem, Chamor and their people will agree to circumcise then they can join with the children of Yaakov as a single people.

Shechem, Chamor and their people accept this arrangement. The people circumcise. While they are recovering from the procedure, Shimon and Leyve enter the town, kill all of the men and rescue Dinah.

In our pasuk, Yaakov condemns the actions of his sons. He sons defend their behavior. They argue that they could not allow their sister to be treated as a prostitute. This dispute is difficult to understand. Yaakov was present when the brothers presented their proposal of circumcision. He certainly knew that circumcision would not change the moral character of Shechem, Chamor and their people. He must have suspected that the brothers had some hidden plan. Yet, when this plan was executed Yaakov protested! What was his dispute between Yaakov and his sons?

Sforno explains that Yaakov and his sons never assumed that the Shechem and Chamor would agree to circumcision. They also assumed that even should they accept this condition, they would never convince their people to undergo circumcision. They hoped that Shechem and Chamor would recognize that they could not meet the condition. They would return Dinah.[8]

Shechem, Chamor and their people surprised Yaakov and his sons. They accepted circumcision. Now, Yaakov and his sons were confronted with a dilemma. They were faced with two options. They could allow Dinah to stay with Shechem. This was an outcome they had not anticipated. Alternatively, they could attempt to rescue Dinah.

We can now begin to understand Yaakov’s reaction to the behavior of Shimon and Leyve. Yaakov and his sons felt that it would be tragic to give Dinah to Shechem. They had never expected this outcome. However, at this point Yaakov and his sons were faced with the consequences of the bargain. Yaakov maintained that they must accept these unfortunate results and give Dinah to Shechem in marriage.

We can now understand the dispute between Yaakov and his sons. According to Sforno Yaakov made two points. He argued that Shimon and Leyve had endangered all of Bnai Yisrael. They were a minority group in the land of Canaan. The other people of the land would identify with the Shechem, Chamor and their people. They would seek to avenge this wrong committed by Bnai Yisrael. Yaakov and his children could not defend themselves from such an attack.

However, this was not Yaakov’s whole argument. Yaakov and his sons had violated their bargain. This disturbed Yaakov. The people of Canaan would conclude that Yaakov and his sons were dishonest. This would reflect poorly on their morality and ultimately on Hashem.

What was the response of Shimon and Leyve? According to Sforno, they disputed both of Yaakov’s arguments. They maintained that the people of Canaan were not so immoral as to condone the behavior of Shechem. They would recognize the right of Yaakov and his sons to rescue Dinah. Finally, they would understand the necessity of using subterfuge. Shechem, Chamor and their people outnumbered Yaakov and his sons. They could not rescue their sister without first disabling her captors. Bnai Yisrael would not be condemned for acting unethically. Neither were they in danger of retribution.[9]

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

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:30.

[3] See Sefer Shemot 3:13 and 6:3.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, Introduction to Parshat VaYishlach.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:4.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 33:4.

[7] Rabbaynu Leyve ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 126 and 200.

[8] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:13.

[9] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:30-31.