Yaacov prepared in three ways to meet his brother Esau. He sent gifts for peace, he prayed and he prepared to fight him, dividing his family into two camps, so that if one group was attacked the other might be saved. He sent them all over the Jabbok, and then was left alone.
“And then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”. Many interpretations are given to the passage, some focussing on the literal and others on the symbolic meanings of the episode. R’Munk quoted Rambam who argued that the struggle and the ensuing dialogue took place only in a prophetic vision since it states clearly at the end of the passage that an angel was involved. R’ Levi ben Gershon maintained that the thigh injury was an aftermath of the vision and caused by auto-suggestion. Ramban, Radak and Ibn Ezra argued that the struggle must have been real and not imagined because the injury led to Yaacov being lame.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote that Yaacov was not a fearful person. He was not afraid of the external dangers that might lie in store for him, but he was afraid of his own self-accusation. He did not have a clear conscience in how he had tricked Esau twenty years earlier and deceived Itzchak into giving him Esau’s blessing. The tremendous struggle, which was referred to as “striving with G-d and with men” resulted in him prevailing despite his injury,and his name being changed from Yaacov to Israel, like a transformation in Yaacov’s life to becoming a man of G-d.
Aviva Zornberg wrote that Yaacov essentially became aware of his courage: the conviction that those with whom you contend are no more than you. He contended with himself, with his dread, his sense of evil and the need to make sense of the world. “Seeking wholeness, he struggled for a new sense of the good, that will endure through all evil”. Zornberg wrote that Yaacov’s courage was composed of multiple layers of readiness – for war, for peace and for prayer. Yaacov was the last of the patriarchs. His father and grandfather had plotted the direction, Avraham with his expansiveness and imagination, and Itzchak, with his knowledge of being bound on an altar, the wisdom and subtlety arising from an inward life. The challenge for Yaacov was to find a synthesis of the polar characteristics of Avraham and Yitzchak.
Leibowitz wrote that the journey from Yaacov to Israel is the journey which was laid out for the Jewish people,and we are still not sure if it will reach its destination. R’ SR Hirsch wrote that the injury that Yaacov sustained marked him as he walked toward Esau, that Yaacov’s instability indicated to Esau that he must have had G-d’s support to face up to his army of four hundred men. We are commanded to refrain from eating from the hind-quarter of an animal, to remind us of this. Hirsch wrote that physical strength is given to the descendants of Esau,whereas the strength of Yaacov-Israel depends on the higher power against which the sword of Esau cannot prevail. Israel cannot survive by material strength alone, but needs to also “cultivate G-d’s protection”.
The incident of Yaacov’s struggle with the angel occurred at Peniel on the bank of the Jabbok ,a tributary of the Jordan,and the first river south of the Yarmuk. It waters the fertile plain of Succoth, having cut the mountains of Gilead in two, making it a political border throughout almost all historical periods.