Yaakov’s Encounter with the Ministering Angel of Esav
After Yaakov Avinu conducted his family and possessions across the river when returning to what would eventually become known as Eretz Yisrael, we read the following in the Torah (Bereshit 32:25): וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר (And Yaakov was left alone, and a ‘man’ wrestled with him until dawn). As we explained in the article ‘Dancing with the Devil to Dance with Hashem‘, Yaakov’s main battle with the Samech Mem involved his mind and his spirit. Simply put, would the Satan defeat him through sadness, worry and depression, or would Yaakov defeat the Satan through happiness and the uplifting power of dancing? This epic battle is hinted at in the verb used to describe the interaction, וַיֵּאָבֵק [vayei’avek]. The word doesn’t necessarily mean to wrestle, but rather to get dirty or dusty, which can be accomplished primarily either through fighting or dancing. One wanted to fight (which is the way of Esav) and one wanted to dance (which is the way of Yaakov). This dichotomy is perfectly expressed by David ha-Melech (Tehillim 120:7): אֲנִי־שָׁלוֹם וְכִי אֲדַבֵּר הֵמָּה לַמִּלְחָמָה (I am shalom, but when I speak, they are for war). Try to picture it. The Satan is trying to wrestle with Yaakov, while Yaakov is trying to dance with the Satan. This may not be what we normally imagine when reading this story, but this is exactly the essence of the struggle.
Seeing that he was not getting the upper hand, the Satan resorted to a ‘dirty trick’ to prevent Yaakov from continuing to dance (Bereshit 32:26): וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ (And when he saw that he wasn’t able to prevail over him, he touched the socket of his thigh, and the socket of Yaakov’s thigh was dislocated, and he wrestled/danced with him). Since we already know that they were wrestling/dancing with each other from 32:25, why does the Torah need to tell us again, in the very next verse, that they continued doing so after the Samech Mem dislocated Yaakov’s hip joint? The answer to this question reveals the true inner strength of Yaakov. No matter how much the forces of impurity tried to discourage and depress him through that dark lonely night of galut, he remained positive and happy knowing that Hashem was with him, and that He was the one orchestrating the events of his life for his good. And this is why he received the name Yisrael, meaning ‘he shall be a Minister of G-d’, for one who ministers before Hashem must serve him in a state of simchah, as it is written (Tehillim 100:2): עִבְדוּ אֶת־יְיָ בְּשִׂמְחָה בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו בִּרְנָנָה (Serve Hashem with simchah, come before Him with joyful singing).
After the Satan conceded and blessed Yaakov, we read the following (Bereshit 32:31-32): וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם פְּנִיאֵל כִּי־רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקִים פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי׃ וַיִּזְרַח־לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵל וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ עַל־יְרֵכוֹ (And Yaakov called the name of the place Peniel because, ‘I saw Elokim face to face [panim el panim], and my soul/life [nefesh] was saved’. And the sun shined for him when he passed Penuel for he had been limping on his thigh). What’s going on here? The Torah doesn’t seem to make any sense. We were just told that Yaakov called the place Peniel, and yet immediately afterward, the Torah tells us that the name of the place is Penuel. So what’s the actual name of the place, Peniel or Penuel?
Not only that, but what does the verse mean by saying that the ‘sun shined for him’? Didn’t the sun also shine for Yaakov’s family who had already crossed the river? And what about Esav? And everyone else on the planet? Didn’t the sun shine for them too?
Furthermore, how can Yaakov say that he saw Elokim, i.e. G-d? He had just gone through an existential life-threatening encounter with the Satan, not with G-d. How could he have possibly described the situation by saying that he saw Elokim, panim el panim? Seeing Elokim panim el panim is an exalted spiritual experience of yichud, i.e. intimacy, attained only by a few tzaddikim such as Moshe Rabbeinu (Shemot 33:11): וְדִבֶּר יְיָ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵהוּ (And Hashem spoke with Moshe panim el panim, as a man who speaks with his friend). Even David ha-Melech yearned for such intimacy (Tehillim 42:2): צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי לֵאלֹקִים לְקֵל חָי מָתַי אָבוֹא וְאֵרָאֶה פְּנֵי אֱלֹקִים (My soul thirsts for Elokim, to the G-d of my life. When will I come and appear before [or, ‘see the face of’] Elokim?).
Let’s start with why the place was given two names, Peniel and Penuel. Many answers have been given to address this issue, and we cannot cover them all here. Nevertheless, we’ll focus on one aspect that is relevant to our story. Peniel is spelled with a י [yud] whereas Penuel is spelled with a ו [vav]. These are the two ‘male’ letters in G-d’s name Havayah. The yud, which is the first letter in Hashem’s name, represents the root of all mochin [spiritual brains], i.e. chochmah [wisdom], whereas the vav represents the six fundamental middot [attributes or character traits] of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod and yesod. By calling the name of the place Peniel, Yaakov was focusing on what was at the source of every true, spiritual connection with the Ribono shel Olam, i.e. mochin. To see ‘the face of G-d’, i.e. פְּנֵי קֵל, requires a highly developed spiritual intellect, as it is taught (Baba Batra 12a): אָמַר אַמֵּימָר: וְחָכָם עָדִיף מִנָּבִיא (Ameimar said, ‘A sage is superior to a prophet’). Nevertheless, if one only has mochin and doesn’t work on developing his middot, then what’s the point of his life? Hashem didn’t just create the light of chochmah and its female counterpart, the light of binah. He created their offspring as well, ze’ir anpin (the six middot) and his sister/bride, malchut. And so it is with us. We must unite chochmah with binah, i.e. which is the yichud of da’at, and bring into existence true godly character traits, i.e. middot, which is the only way to positively influence our interaction with others.
We can think of chochmah as the gasoline in the tank of a car. If the engine isn’t turned on so that the fuel undergoes combustion in the pistons, i.e. there is no yichud of chochmah with binah, then the car isn’t going anywhere. What’s the car? We are the car. In such a case, our lives aren’t going anywhere because we never brought down the infinite light of chochmah, i.e. the yud of Peniel, in order for it to have concrete, practical outcomes in our world as the vav of Penuel. In our car analogy, we do that by turning on the engine of the car through tefillah with kavanah [concentration and focus]. And this is what we can learn from Yaakov, i.e. that every encounter that we have with the Yetzer ha-Ra must result in the infinite light of chochmah having its practical effect in this world. If we are to grow spiritually and make progress in our lives, then each trial or difficulty that we go through must result in a ‘Peniel experience’ and a ‘Penuel experience’. We must develop mochin d’gadlut, i.e. expanded consciousness, as well as more refined and elevated middot. Just as with Yaakov Avinu, our battles with the Yetzer ha-Ra begin in our mind, in our consciousness. And we win those battles, not just by learning Torah, but by uniting the Torah that we learn with tefillah in a spirit of simchah and self-nullification, thus fulfilling the deeper meaning of Penuel, i.e. פָנוּ קֵל [‘turn to G-d’ or ’empty oneself before G-d’].
This is the secret behind the Torah telling us that the ‘sun shined for him.’ Each one of us must see ourselves as being the only one in the entire universe for whom Hashem created everything, as it is taught (Sanhedrin 37a): כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם (Every individual must say, ‘The world was created for me’). In other words, if there was no other Jew in the entire world, and if Hashem only wanted me to be given the gift of eternal life, then He still would have created all of it. Therefore, literally, the sun rose that morning and shined just for Yaakov, just as the sun rose this morning and shined just for me and just for you. That being the case, what was the point of the sun shining just for him? Rashi answers from the Midrash: וּמִ”אַ ויזרח לו לְצָרְכּוֹ לְרַפְּאוֹת אֶת צָלַעְתּוֹ כְּמָה דְּתֵימָא שֶׁמֶשׁ צְדָקָה וּמַרְפֵּא בִּכְנָפֶיהָ (And from the Midrash, ‘and it shined for him’, i.e. for his need, to heal his limp, like it says [Malachi 3:20], ‘the sun of charity and healing in its wings’). When we fight against the Yetzer ha-Ra in us by staying happy in the face of adversity because we choose to develop emunah in Hashem, and believe that He is the conductor of our lives, and that everything He does is for our good, then and only then will we be privileged to have the sun shine for us. And what will this sun do for us? It will heal us, from the inside out, from the nefesh to the body. It may take a while, but when morning dawns, when the light of geulah finally rises in the eastern sky, we will be healed and we will merit seeing Elokim panim el panim.
Now we can understand why Yaakov said that he saw Elokim panim el panim even though he was battling the Samech Mem all night long. After all, who orchestrated this encounter? Who created the Samech Mem? Was it not Hashem? Therefore, we might have thought that Yaakov should have said, ‘I saw Hashem panim el panim‘, but he didn’t say that. He said, ‘I saw Elokim panim el panim.’ The verse comes to teach us that we must learn to see G-d even in din, when we experience G-d only as Elokim, and not just in times of rachamim when we experience Him as Hashem. This is what David ha-Melech also expressed when he said (Tehillim 56:11): בֵּאלֹקֵים אֲהַלֵּל דָּבָר בַּייָ אֲהַלֵּל דָּבָר (With Elokim I shall praise a matter; with Hashem I shall praise a matter). It is also what he said in Tehillim 139:8: אִם־אֶסַּק שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָתָּה וְאַצִּיעָה שְּׁאוֹל הִנֶּךָּ (If I ascend to heaven, You are there; or if I make my bed in hell, behold, You’re there!). When we learn to see the Ribono shel Olam in the darkness as well as in the light, in the night as well as in the day, in bad times as well as in good times, then we will merit the geulah, and the sun will shine for us and we will be healed.
Thirty-four years prior to the events discussed here, Yaakov left Eretz Yisrael. The Torah describes that departure with these words (Bereshit 29:1): וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב רַגְלָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַרְצָה בְנֵי־קֶדֶם (And Yaakov lifted up his legs, and he went to the land of the people of the east). Why does the Torah need to tell us that he ‘lifted up his legs’? Isn’t it enough just to say that ‘he went’? Rashi explains the strange expression ‘he lifted up his legs’ as follows: נָשָׂא לִבּוֹ אֶת רַגְלָיו וְנַעֲשָׂה קַל לָלֶכֶת (His heart lifted up his legs, and it became easy to walk). Now when does one’s heart lift up one’s legs? It is when one is so happy that he can dance with joy, as explained in Likutei Moharan 32: וְהֵם נִתְנַשְּׂאִים עַל־יְדֵי הַלֵּב הַיְנוּ עַל־יְדֵי שִׂמְחַת הַלֵּב כַּנִּרְאֶה בְּחוּשׁ שֶׁעַל־יְדֵי שִׂמְחַת הַלֵּב מְרַקְּדִין כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב גַּבֵּי יַעֲקֹב (And they [the legs] are lifted up by the heart, i.e. through the simchah of the heart, as we know from experience, that through the simchah of the heart, we dance, like it is written about Yaakov).
After returning to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov settled in Shechem (Bereshit 33:18): וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם (And Yaakov came, shalem, to the city of Shechem). What is the meaning of saying that he came shalem, i.e. wholly intact, complete, perfect, unimpaired? Rashi explains that it means that he lacked nothing. He was healed from all illness including his limp, wholly intact in his possessions, and complete in his knowledge of Torah, not having forgotten anything. To which we may now add, he was also perfect in his simchah. For he had learned the true secret of happiness, i.e. that simchah has nothing to do with one’s external circumstances.
Therefore, instead of trying to find happiness in a good job, or in riches, or in good health, etc., we need to connect to the true source of happiness, the Ribono shel Olam Himself. Because the truth is that happiness is a gift, and it is given to those who have an upright heart (Tehillim 97:11): אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי־לֵב שִׂמְחָה (Light is sown for the Tzaddik, and simchah to those of an upright heart).