A Life Lesson from Our Father Yaakov
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber
In the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Jacob returns to his homeland where his brother Esau is preparing to attack him with four hundred men. As Jacob advances and prepares for battle, he forgets some small jugs, and he returns to retrieve them alone. Before he was able to return to his camp, he was confronted by the angel of Esau (see Rashi), and a battle raged between them the entire night. As day broke and Jacob rose victorious, the angel gave him a blessing along with a new name: Yisroel (Israel). The angel explained the meaning of this name, based on the Hebrew language, to represent the fact that he had fought with people and won. Rashi explains (based on the Medrash) that the use of the plural tense is referring to his victories over Lavan, his father in law, who made his life very difficult and nearly attacked him, and Esau. This interpretation raises a question. Jacob had not been confronted yet by Esau until after this episode. How could Jacob be congratulated upon beating Esau before the confrontation took place?
This question was posed by Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveichik to his children during World War II. They fled their hometown, Brisk, which was part of Poland until it was captured by the Germans and subsequently handed over to Russia, and they reached Vilna, which was in Lithuania. Eventually, Lithuania was captured by Russia as well, and many of their military officers and government officials came to Vilna. One day, the Russians came to inspect their apartment, and found it to be appealing. The Russians gave them an official notice stating that Russian officers and officials will be visiting the apartment, and should any of them decide to take it, the family had forty eight hours to leave. As the Russians were “gentlemen” and did not just kick people out into the street, they offered the Soloveichiks a different home a little further out. One of the children went to see the alternative residence, and found it to be a dilapidated shack in the middle of nowhere, with no windows or doors. The children started fearing that they would momentarily be thrown out into the streets in the middle of the winter, and this is when Rabbi Soloveichik asked the above question. (This saga took place during the week preceding the reading of this week’s Torah portion.)
He then proceeded to give the following answer: All the events which take place on earth are just a result of that which is going on in heaven. As mentioned above, this match was no ordinary physical fight, but a struggle with an angel. It was a spiritual fight with the angel representing the power of Esau. When Jacob beat the angel of Esau and the spiritual battle was won, the struggle down here was practically over. This is why it was proper already to consider Jacob victorious over Esau even before the actual confrontation took place between the two. Following this logic, he advised his children that similarly, the main thing that they had to be concerned with was their situation in heaven, not the Russians. As long as they strengthened their prayers and stood firm against the opposing evil forces in heaven, they had nothing to worry about.
These words gave them encouragement, and that’s exactly what happened. Despite the fact that they had a large and beautiful apartment, every time a Russian family came to see it, as soon as they got to the middle of the hallway, they turned their noses in disgust and left. A little while later, the Soloveichiks left for Israel, and left someone in charge of selling the furniture they had left behind. That person later told them that the day after their departure, a Russian family came to look at the apartment and took it.
Whenever we are faced with an opposing party who is creating difficulties for us, be it a neighbor, a political figure or a clerk at a government office, we tend to get worked up about defeating our opponent. However, in doing so, we are failing to address the root of the confrontation. Yes, we should take action in a manner which makes sense; but we must realize that the point of tension lies elsewhere. When we are confronted by an opponent, we must realize that the true confrontation is being held on a spiritual level, and what we are experiencing is just the outcome. It may be a result of a character trait which we need to improve. Perhaps there is a related Torah value which we are not prioritizing the way we should. Sometimes it could be just a matter of faith and prayer which we need to embrace to achieve our goal. If we want to win, the only way we can actively do something to gain victory is by focusing on the battle “upstairs.” Once we win “upstairs,” our victory down here is sealed.