By Rabbi Zev Leff
And Yaakov was very frightened and distressed (Bereishis 32 7).
Rashi comments that Yaakov was frightened lest he or members of his family be killed, and he was distressed that he might be forced to kill others. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, asks: Why was Yaakov distressed that he might be put into a position of having to kill Esav or one of his four hundred wicked companions? Wasn’t this an opportunity to rid the world of evil-a reason to rejoice, not to be distressed? Reb Moshe answers with the words of Beruriah to her husband, R’ Meir (Berachos 10a): better to pray that evildoers repent than to pray that the wicked die. Yaakov was distressed that he might have to kill to remove evil from the world.
There is an inherent danger in using methods that are normally associated with negative values to achieve desirable goals. The classic example is the sin for the sake of Heaven, which the Gemara (Nazir 10b) says is equal to a mitzvah done shelo lishmah-i.e., for ulterior motives. The Vilna Gaon asks if so, why do Chazal advise one to engage in the performance of mitzvos shelo lishmah and not in the performance of aveiros lishmah. He answers that while the result in both cases may be the same, doing mitzvos without the proper intention, at least conditions a person to performance of the mitzvah, and eventually he will perform the mitzvah with the proper intention. On the other hand, acting in a way that is normally a sin, but which is transformed into a mitzvah by virtue of the intention with which it is performed, conditions one to the sinful act. And the next time the action is done it might be without the proper intention and remain a sin through and through.
For this reason, immediately after the Torah commands us to destroy an, a city in which most of the inhabitants have been seduced to idolatry, Hashem tells us He will give us the quality of mercy (Devarim 1318). Since fulfilling this mitzvah can condition one to be cruel and merciless, the Chafetz Chaim explains, God promises a special blessing to counteract its effects.
The Midrash relates that Yehudah intended to pass by Tamar when she stood at the crossroads masquerading as a harlot. But Hashem said to Himself, as it were If you pass by, where will the future kings and prophets come from? From where will Mashiach come? Hashem then sent the angel of desire to force Yehudah to confront Tamar. The Midrash ends that this was done against Yehudah’s will and not for his benefit.
The obvious question is if God’s purpose was to produce kings, prophets, and ultimately Mashiach himself, how could this action be described as “not for his benefit?” The answer is now clear. The undesirable conduct posed a continuing threat to Yehudah that he might become habituated to such actions.
A person is punished for achieving a desirable result if it could have been done in a way that would bring less pain or discomfort to others. Yaakov’s suffering in taking Esav’s blessings caused Esav to cry a great and bitter cry. And that cry found its parallel, hundreds of years later, when Esav’s descendant Haman caused Mordechai to let out a great and bitter cry.
Similarly, Yaakov castigated Shimon and Levi for using methods stolen from Esav-murder and deception-to accomplish the rescue of Dinah. Part of the remedy for the blemish left by their deeds was that the descendants of Levi became teachers of little children.
Levi made the mistake of thinking that the ends justify the means. In the education of children the exact opposite is true. When we teach a child to perform mitzvos, we are not concerned with the end, the mitzvah, since a child’s actions are not themselves mitzvos, but with the means, the performance of mitzvah actions. These mitzvah actions, in which a parent is required to educate his child, conditions the child to function in a like manner when he matures. Hence the mitzvah of chinuch banim (teaching children) is the antithesis of the mistaken ideology that the ends justify the means.
Furthermore, if one utilizes improper means to achieve a mitzvah, he will be punished if his intentions are not completely pure. Since the action itself is a sin-and only the person’s intention transforms it into a mitzvah-where that intention is lacking, the action reverts to its original status. Thus, when Pinchas killed Zimri and Kozbi for desecrating God’s Name, Hashem Himself had to testify that his intentions were pure to answer the complaint of the tribes that he was a murderer. Had his intentions been tainted, he would, in fact, have been a murderer.
Sforno (Vayikra 2423) points out that even when a criminal is executed, the penalty must be inflicted only in fulfillment of God’s command and not out of any personal desire for vengeance. Yehu lost all his reward for wiping out the house of Achav because he too subsequently served idolatry, and thereby showed that his motives were not pure. Since he was not motivated by his disgust with the evil of idolatry, he was nothing more than an ordinary murderer.
In Shemoneh Esrei we invoke God’s curse on the heretics and informers in the blessing “velamalshinim.” When this blessing had to be added due to the physical and spiritual persecution that the Jews were suffering at the hands of these evildoers, Shmuel Hakatan was chosen to compose it, the same Shmuel Hakatan who said, “When your enemy falls, be not glad” (Pirkei Avos 4 24). Although he did no more than quote a verse in Mishlei, Shmuel Hakatan’s statement is recorded in Pirkei Avos because he lived it. His entire being and conduct proclaimed the verse in Mishlei. Only one with such pure feelings towards his enemies could compose a tefillah calling for their destruction.
The blessing velamalshinim was instituted in Yavneh, writes Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and the name hints to 14, (wine), spices, light, and (the blessing of havdalah). One should first try to draw the sinner close with joy and happiness and by helping him feel the pleasant savor of Torah and its illumination. Only when all these fail, should he separate himself totally. He should utilize spices to insure that his actions will have a pleasant aroma and not cause a stench. The way to do this is through illumination and enlightenment with the pure light of the candle. Rather than attacking the darkness, one should transform it into light.
Rabbi Chaim Brisker pointed out that there are two types of zealots – one praiseworthy and one not. They can be compared to a housewife and a cat. The housewife and the cat both want to rid the the house of mice. There is only one difference: the housewife hopes there will never be another mouse to eliminate; the cat is hopeful that there will be many more mice.
Before we are zealous to attack the evils of the world, let us make sure that we are acting as housewives not as cats, so that we can merit through our ways of pleasantness to attract our estranged brothers to Torah and mitzvos.
Struggling With Angels
Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Bereishis 32 24).
A society in which technology enables us to deal effortlessly with many of life’s difficulties raises the issue of the value of challenges and struggles. The Torah’s view on this question lies at the center of the account of the struggle between Yaakov and the angel.
According to one Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3) the angel who confronted Yaakov was Esav’s archangel, Satan himself. He came to obstruct and deter Yaakov on his return to Eretz Yisrael. Another Midrash however, says that the angel was Michael, the patron of Yaakov and the Jewish people. To make matters even more difficult, Rashbam writes that Yaakov sought to run away from Esav, and Michael came to restrain him by demonstrating to Yaakov that Hashem’s promise to him would be fulfilled.
To resolve these seeming contradictions we must understand the Torah’s view of man’s struggle. Mesilas Yesharim describes life as one of struggle. Hashem put the neshamah (soul) into a physical body in order for it to earn Olam Haba through its efforts to overcome the yetzer hara. It is this struggle which elevates a person and enables him to reach the ultimate goal of achieving the World to Come.
Upon his return to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov wanted to sit in peace after all the trials of his life: flight from his brother Esav, life in the house of Lavan, the tragedy with Dinah and the death of Rachel. He came back to Eretz Yisrael ready to begin a life of tranquillity. Immediately, Yosef was taken away. Hashem responded, says the Midrash, by saying “Is that which is prepared for tzaddikim in the next world not enough? Do they also want to have tranquillity in this world?”
Is it, then, impossible for a tzaddik to have good in both worlds? Do Chazal not tell us that not everyone merits two tables – this world and the next-thereby implying that some do merit both?
Like all rhetorical questions, that of Hashem in the Midrash is really a statement of fact. Man was put into this world to grow, not to remain stationary. Through that growth man acquires an ever greater portion in the World to Come. Respite from outside tensions is not an invitation to take it easy but an opportunity to exert oneself more in attaining perfection. The problem with Yaakov’s desire for tranquillity was in the fact that he sought to sit, to remain at rest, and not to utilize his respite to be able to redouble his efforts.
Hashem responded, “It is not enough what is already prepared for the tzaddik in Olam Haba. It is never enough. There is always potential for more. And yet he wants to remain at rest?” Hashem will not permit that, for it is detrimental for the tzaddik. And therefore Yaakov was presented with a new challenge-the sale of Yosef- to prevent him from remaining static.
The struggle between Yaakov and the angel has far reaching significance for us today. The Talmud says that the dust kicked up by Yaakov and the angel reached up to the Throne of Glory, signifying the effect of that struggle on all future Jewish history. (The Throne of Glory represents God’s Providence. the guiding force in history.)
During the struggle the angel took on different disguises. According to one opinion, he came as a talmid chacham. Another opinion says that he came as a robber. Sometimes a person wants to elevate himself, but something stands in his way. That is the Satan- the robber – who seeks to deny the person what he wants. That denial is to challenge him and cause him to appreciate all the more his accomplishments. On the other hand, there is the angel who tries to pull a person up when he wants to stay put. That is Michael, the talmid chacham. Yaakov wanted to avoid problems; Michael forced the struggle upon him in order to elevate him higher.
At the end of the night, the angel asked to be set free, but Yaakov refused. While at the beginning of the night Yaakov sought to avoid the confrontation, by night’s end he realized that the struggle was essential to his very existence.
And why did the angel want to go? He wanted to sing to Hashem. His time to sing only came in the morning. Rabbi Dessler explains that when an angel fulfills its purpose, that is the song it sings. The angel, whether it be Satan or Michael, exists to give us the chance to fight and be successful, and when we are successful then the angel, too, has fulfilled its mission.
In this light we can understand why the angel did not tell Yaakov his name. Angels’ names change with their function. Yaakov’s struggle represents all struggles Jews have faced and will face throughout history. Each man’s struggles in life are different, depending on his unique nature. What is easy for one person is difficult for another. Thus, every person has a slightly different Satan and Michael to fight with. Consequently, the angel could not give a single name.
Where does a person derive the power to carry on these struggles? The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 771) states: “There is none like God; yet who is like God? Jeshurun [which means Yisrael, the Patriarchl. Just as it is written of God, ‘And the Lord alone shall be exalted’ (Isaiah 211). So, too, of Yaakov: ‘And Yaakov was left alone’ (Bereishis 32 25).’
Both Hashem and Israel possess the quality of being alone. No outside power has an effect on Hashem. Nothing adds to or subtracts from His Essence. A Jew has the power to a certain degree to emulate Hashem in this respect. If a person has the inner strength of character and knows who he is, then nothing external, no problem or challenge, can deter him. He recognizes that all external obstacles are just that -external. He remains strong, for his essence remains untouched. He knows that even if he fails it is only in unessential matters. He may be slowed down but he perseveres; he is not overwhelmed.
And what is the inner strength of a Jew-Torah. Yaakov is the personification of Torah. He represents the strength of character that Torah builds.
Yaakov was wounded in the thigh. Midrash Tanchuma relates that the angel wanted to know how Yaakov could keep up the fight for so long, and concluded that he must be an angel himself. The difference between angels and humans is that angels do not have a hip joint. They cannot sit. An angel is always ready for action. Consequently, he never becomes depressed or overwhelmed. A human does not have this ability. He can be overwhelmed by a situation, causing him to give up and sit down in inactivity.
The angel struck Yaakov in the hip joint and saw that he was a man. Yaakov was wounded; he had failed a little; but he did not give up and become depressed. Because he knew who he and what he was, he could overcome; it was only a minor setback and he continued the struggle. A tzaddik can fall seven times and still continue to get up. He deals with each failure and remains in control.
The Torah gives us a constant reminder of Yaakov’s struggle the prohibition on eating the aid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve). Sforno explains that we thereby show that the place where Yaakov was wounded is not important. That is how a person must deal with failure. When you fail in one area you cannot become de- pressed over it. What’s the aid hanasheh-nothing important. We throw it away. Every time a person refrains from eating the aid hanasheh, he is reminded not to be overwhelmed by adversity.
Each negative prohibition in the Torah corresponds to a different day of the year. The aid hanasheh corresponds to Tishah B’Av, a day of destruction. Other nations would have been devastated by the loss of their land and independence. But Klal Yisrael continues on, even in galus. ‘God thrust us into the darkness’-this refers to the Babylonian Talmud” (Sanhedrin 24a). Out of the darkness of galus, the Chafetz Chaim explains, comes the incentive to achieve, to produce. It is the darkness that is the motivating force in the continuation and enhancement of the Oral Torah – Talmud Bavli. Klal Yisrael was wounded when we had to leave Eretz Yisrael, but we continued to function and gain strength through the struggle.
Chazal say that when the First Temple was destroyed, the cherubim embraced each other. One represented God and the other Yisrael. Hashem shook us to our very foundation by destroying the Beis Hamikdash and forcing us to limp away into galus, but at the same time He guaranteed that we retain the ability to return.
Failure itself is the incentive to rise and continue. It is challenges and struggles that give a person the chance to turn his life around. Every negative thing in life can be used in a positive way. Rabbi Dessler points out that the word, evil, inverted is, awaken. Evil is there for the purpose of awakening a person. Setbacks and obstacles in a person’s life are not there to immobilize him, but to offer a challenge, something to fight against in order to strengthen himself and earn his ultimate reward.
Since Yaakov can now distinguish between the peripheral and the essential, he is no longer Yaakov but Yisrael. The name Yisrael signifies his worthiness to receive the blessing. The name Yisrael represents struggle with man and angel. Because he struggled he came face to face with Hashem. The struggle is the essence of the name Yisrael.
That, too, is the greatness of Klal Yisrael. We deserve Hashem’s blessing because we have the strength of character, derived from the Torah, to be able to struggle even when we are wounded. Yaakov’s name is changed but not completely. The name Yaakov still remains because the struggle goes on. At times we will be Yisrael and win; sometimes we will go back to being Yaakov. Life is full of ups and downs. But we realize that we have the potential of being Yisrael even when we are Yaakov, facing the setbacks and disappointments of life; we may be slowed down, but we will not give up.
In the end, the angel left Yaakov wounded, but he did not sit down and bemoan his fate; he limped away. Once he showed that he could persevere, then Hashem took out the sun and healed him. This is a hint to Olam Haba, when Hashem will take out the bright light hidden at Creation and with it heal the tzaddikim. There, they will reach their highest level of perfection, the culmination of all their struggles in this world with men and angels.