T housands of years have passed since the mysterious nocturnal confrontation between Yaakov and the angel of Eisav, yet nothing has changed. Yaakov is still engaged in a wrestling match that has been forced upon him, against an enemy that seeks his destruction

“And Yaakov was left alone…” (Bereishis 32:24).

The Ramban’s commentary on the verse, as in other places in Sefer Bereishis, again refers to how the events in the lives of the Forefathers are really a blueprint for the future. “Here, again, we have an allusion to future generations, for everything that happened to our Forefather with Eisav will happen to us perpetually with Eisav’s descendants.”

In other words, the particular events of the moment in history described there are like a picture on microfilm which, when enlarged, will show millennia of future events contained in one seminal episode. Study it closely, and you will have a sign of things to come.

The encounter between Yaakov and Eisav is not merely a personal one; it is historic. Every encounter between the descendants of Yaakov and Eisav throughout history contains the DNA imprint of that original encounter. But the climactic moment of the drama actually occurs before the two brothers come face to face. It occurs on the preceding night:

“And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he could not overpower him, and he touched the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh as he wrestled with him… And he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ …And he said, ‘No longer shall your name be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with G-d and with men; you have prevailed’ ” (Bereishis 32:25–29).

The timelessness of this dramatic meeting cries out from the pesukim. This ancient narrative of the struggle between Yaakov and the “man” — the angel of Eisav — on that night rings with stunning familiarity — a pasuk in which more is hidden than revealed, a pasuk whose antiquity becomes new for us every day:

“And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

Thousands of years have passed since that mysterious nocturnal confrontation, and its significance has not been eroded — because nothing has changed. Yaakov is still left alone. He is still engaged in a wrestling match that has been forced upon him, at the home front and abroad, against an enemy that seeks to eradicate him, to blur his unique identity, to remove him from the world, while he craves a little peace and quiet, a bit of rest.

The outer shell of the story changes from generation to generation, but the inner kernel remains the same.

A perusal of the parshah quickly reveals how very alone Yaakov was. His family, including the sons that made up the only military force he had, were already on the other side of the Yabok crossing. On the most crucial night of his life, Yaakov was left with no physical aid at all. When the test came — a war that he didn’t declare — he could rely only on his inner resources, on the powers of his personal ethos, on his spiritual strength — on Hashem.

Such were his fighting forces, the only ones he had at his disposal when the angel of Eisav — and the entire civilization that stemmed from him — fell upon Yaakov that night in a furious assault against him and all that he stood for. And the angel “saw that he could not overcome him.” He could not defeat Yaakov. That spiritual battle, which presaged the actual meeting between the two rival brothers, ended in a draw. Despite the ferocious attack that went on all that night — that particular night, and the long night of history that followed — Yaakov remained in the world.

But the attack was not entirely ineffectual. It left its mark on Yaakov: “And he touched the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was sprained as he wrestled with him.”

“The hollow of the thigh” refers to the strong muscle that controls the leg. The ability to stand firmly and walk with a steady step depends on this muscle. Yaakov was not brought down in the fight. His legs did not give way under him. He was not taken out of the historical picture. But the angel managed to injure a tendon in Yaakov’s thigh. This tendon, or gid, became the gid hanasheh. The Gemara explains in Maseches Chullin (91a) that nasheh means “rendered helpless” as in the pasuk “Nashtah gevurasam, hayu l’nashim — their might has failed; they have become like women” (Yirmiyahu 51:30).

From then on, Yaakov was lame. In historical terms, Yaakov’s standing in the material world lost its stability. He would always be in the shadow of danger. Limping, but living. He would never have material and human assets to match those of his enemies. He would never be blessed with an endless supply of resources. Yet the quantity in his treasury would not decide his fate.

His chances of survival in a jungle of nations that would try to tear him to pieces would depend solely on his faithfulness to his spiritual legacy, the resources of his soul, his ethos, and his goal — all the powers that he brought to bear on that seminal night near the ford of Yabok.

“Until the break of dawn.” Until then, the clashes go on. As long as darkness holds sway over the earth, as long as the fog of war clouds human vision, the enemy will think he has the upper hand. He will believe that his material advantage will bring him certain victory in the end.

But when dawn breaks, and the truth of Yaakov’s spiritual destiny and the impregnability of his moral message come to light, the angel must give up the fight. “Let me go,” says the “man” to Yaakov, “for dawn is breaking.”

And now it is Yaakov who turns stubborn. Attacked, battle-weary, limping on his injured leg, he will not allow the story to end this way.

Now, he is the one to dictate the terms: “I will not let you go until you have blessed me.” I won’t release you, my perennial assailant, you who saw me as an obstacle to your way of life. I will hold onto you with the last of my strength, until you admit that your attempts to vanquish me are spent and failed. Now that the light of day reveals which one of us is right, you must bless me. Concede, acknowledge, and proclaim that I don’t deserve scorn, hate, and hostility for my unique path among the family of humanity. On the contrary, I deserve your blessing, because my way has brought blessing to all the nations of the world.

And this was, and will be, his blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with G-d and with men, and you have prevailed.”

From the darkness, Yaakov emerges, and he is the marvel of human history. After thousands of years, the peoples of the earth will gaze upon him, astonished at the sight of this small tribe of poor means, at many junctures in history lacking the basic tools of survival, which has nevertheless survived. Struggling alone on his lame leg, Yaakov has withstood all the corrosive and destructive forces of nature and history.

They will acknowledge that he is living proof of the worthlessness of raw, violent, physical strength as the only gauge of survival power. The eternal Yaakov will be clear testimony to the permanence of the spirit, the sign and wonder of the Omnipotent G-d, revealed in the miraculous endurance of the externally weaker side. Out of Yaakov’s long night of pain and suffering emerges the name “Yisrael” — a crown for his nation’s head, embedded with the Name of G-d as a sign that somehow they will continue to survive the dark night until dawn breaks and the sun, in all its warmth and glory, will bring eternal healing. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 687)