Parashat Vayishlah: What Was Esav’s Angel Afraid Of?
We read in Parashat Vayishlah the famous story of Yaakob’s wrestle with a mysterious person who attacked him in the middle of the night as he made his way back to Eretz Yisrael. This assailant turned out to be Esav’s heavenly angel. Our Rabbis teach that this angel came to defeat not just Yaakob, but his progeny, as well. This was, if you will, the first attempt at a "final solution," to annihilate the Jewish people. Yaakob, as we know, survived the attack, though he was badly injured, symbolizing the fact that the Jewish people, his descendants, would be "injured" over the course of their history, but they would survive every attack made upon them.
The question arises, why did specifically Yaakob Abinu come under attack? If the evil angels in the heavens wanted to prevent Beneh Yisrael from coming into existence, why didn’t they start their assault right at the beginning, with Abraham Abinu? And if, for whatever reason, they did not attack Abraham, why did they not launch an assault on Yishak? What was so special about Yaakob Abinu that Esav’s angel found so threatening, thus prompting a violent assault?
Each of the three patriarchs excelled specifically in a distinct area of religious life, and bequeathed to us that particular quality. Abraham Abinu implanted within us the quality of Hesed, kindness and generosity, the desire to help others in need. Satan and his minions did not feel threatened by Abraham because kindness alone cannot ensure the perpetuity and eternity of the nation. There are, thank G-d, many non-Jews and many non-observant Jews who also excel in this quality, who are kind, sensitive and caring. As much as we pride ourselves – rightfully so – on our nation’s excellence in this area, we must acknowledge that other people share this quality of Hesed. And thus it alone cannot guarantee our continued existence as a nation. Hence, Satan did not feel threatened by Abraham Abinu.
Yishak Abinu, our second patriarch, embodied the area of Aboda (sacrifice), as he was placed upon the altar, prepared to sacrifice himself for G-d. In the absence of the Bet Ha’mikdash, sacrifices are replaced by prayer; this is how Aboda is expressed in our times. Prayer, too, cannot guarantee the success or continuity of a nation. All streams of all faiths build and attend houses of worship. As important and vital as Tefila is in Jewish life, it cannot guarantee our future, and thus Satan was not frightened or intimidated by Yishak.
The patriarch who did frighten the evil angels was Yaakob Abinu, who embodied the value of Torah study. Intensive, rigorous engagement in sacred texts is something unique to the Jewish people, and it is what has ensured our survival for millennia. This is what frightened Esav’s angel. When he saw Yaakob Abinu’s commitment to Torah, a commitment that would be passed down to his descendants, he realized he had to act immediately. If the Jewish people would retain that commitment – which, of course, we have – they would exist forever. It was thus specifically Yaakob Abinu who came under assault.
The Torah tells that although Yaakob triumphed over the angel, he sustained a serious injury in his thigh. The Zohar comments that the blow to Yaakob’s thigh symbolizes the blow that was dealt to the supporters of Torah. The thigh is what supports the upper part of the body, and Yaakob’s injury thus represents the damage caused to the support of Torah. Indeed, it is far more difficult to raise money for a yeshiva than for Hesed organizations and for synagogues. Many people, Baruch Hashem, eagerly and generously respond to calls for funding to assist the needy or to build or expand synagogues. When it comes to supporting Yeshivot, however, people are often reluctant. This phenomenon is the result of the blow dealt to Yaakob’s thigh, which impaired the base of support for his descendants’ Torah study.
When we are approached with a request to support a Torah institution, the Satan works overtime to discourage us, planting in our minds all kinds of reasons and excuses for refusing. Satan knows that Torah learning is the Jewish people’s greatest weapon against him, and he will therefore do anything he can to interfere with our support of learning. But if we overcome this challenge and offer our generous support to Yeshivot, then we defeat Satan, and help guarantee the continued existence and growth of the Jewish nation, that despite the injury to the "thigh," we will continue to live and thrive for all eternity.