If you were to look at a list of the all-time marquee fights, you would see Ali v. Frazier, Pacquiao v. Mayweather, Mayweather v. Mcgregor (maybe) and the Hulk v Abomination, to name a few. I don’t know if you would find the main card from this week’s Torah portion, but the results of that epic fight still resonate until today. The Torah describes a struggle between our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) and a mysterious angel as well as a perplexing conversation after the bout. In examining this showdown and decoding the message contained within the angel’s enigmatic answer to Yaakov, we can learn a lesson in how to overcome the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) as well as really good advice for any job (or internship) interview.
Before we can understand the Yetzer Harah’s secret and the lesson Yaakov Avinu teaches us, we need to understand the two combatants and what their fight was about. In the fight between Yaakov and the angel, Yaakov is given a limp but forces the angel to bless him in the form of the new name, Yisrael (Israel). So who won the match? Would you rather have an injured leg or have to give someone a blessing? It would seem the angel won, but the Torah positions Yaakov as emerging with the upper-hand and the angel seems to be the one yielding in the end? So who won and what were they really fighting about?
In one corner we have Yaakov Avinu. We know from this week’s Parshah that two of Yaakov’s sons were capable of wiping out an entire city. We also know that each of the Avot (forefathers) epitomized certain character traits. One trait that Yaakov Avinu seemed to demonstrate was his preparedness. When Yaakov was first leaving the house if Yitzchak (Isaac) on the run from his brother Eisav (Esau), he sheltered in the beit midrash of Shem and Ever for 14 years, learning and preparing for his “exile” in the house of Lavan. Yaakov then stayed with Lavan beyond his 14 years of servitude until he felt prepared to throw down with Eisav if it came to that. Yaakov waited until his son Yosef (Joseph) was old enough to travel, since he knew that Eisav was “straw” to Yosef’s “flame” (see this week’s Haftorah – The Book of Ovadia). Finally, as the confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav loom near, Yaakov is again prepared, splitting his entourage and possessions into two contingency camps.
In the other corner, we have the angel Samae-l. In Parshat Vayeira we see it took but one angel to obliterate Sodom and the surrounding metropolis. Samae-l (literally meaning poison of G-d) is the celestial champion of Eisav and is also the Yetzer Harah and the Satan. In Parshat Toldot, as part of the blessing from Yitzchak Avinu, Yaakov is told his children, Binei Yisrael, would be dominant over Eisav. Eisav, who lost out on his first-born blessing, is in turn blessed that whenever Binei Yisrael sins, Eisav’s children will become ascendant (Rashi, Genesis 27:40). As the champion of Eisav, Samae-l tries to bring about Yitzchak’s blessing, by, in the aspect of the Yetzer Harah, causing us, Binei Yisrael, to sin and then prosecuting us in heavenly court in its aspect as the Satan.
The verses in this week’s Parshah tell us when Yaakov heard the news of Eisav’s approaching army he “was very afraid” (Genesis 32:8) and split the people and cattle with him into two camps on opposite sides of a river. The Talmud (Brachot 4a) asks how Yaakov Avinu could have possibly been afraid of Eisav? When Yaakov originally fled Eisav, on his way out of the land of Israel, G-d appears to Yaakov and promises him that Yaakov would be protected. Did Yaakov doubt G-d’s promise of protection? Rav Yaakov bar Idi answers, Yaakov was afraid he might have sinned in the 34 years since G-d’s promise, and he was no longer deserving of G-d’s protection.
As we see from Yaakov’s future encounter with Eisav, that this wasn’t the case and Yaakov was still under the protection of G-d. But is it possible that on the eve of that meeting/possible battle, Eisav’s guardian angel, Samae-l, knew the same thing, and hoped to trip Yaakov up? If Samae-l could cause Yaakov to sin – such as by convincing Yaakov not to make the exhausting, bone-numbing trip back across the river to retrieve his small, seemingly insignificant containers, a form of Baal Tashchit (wastefulness) – then Eisav would have a chance of attacking and defeating Yaakov the following day.
Samae-l failed in its mission, but what was Yaakov hoping to win by pinning the angel and demanding Samae-l reveal its name? And what is Samae-l’s response “Why are you asking my name?” (Genesis 32:30) Either provide its name, or Samae-l should have refused to answer. Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telz Chicago, explains that Yaakov was asking Samae-l to reveal its identity – how it operated and causes Bnei Yisrael to sin. Yaakov hoped to prepare his descendents to combat the Yetzer Harah. Samae-l responds that knowing its name/identity would not help prepare Bnei Yisrael, because as the Yetzer Harah, it would appear different to every generation taking the form of the current ideologies and materialistic desires to infect Bnei Yisrael, constantly adapting like the flu.
So why does the Torah tell us of this conversation? What can we learn from it? Although on the surface, it seems the angel won, or at least the match was a draw, in reality, Yaakov was the victor. Because even in demurring, Samae-l revealed its secret, and gave us an advantage. It is plausible that just as the Yetzer Harah can adapt to each generation, it adapts to each individual. Just like the flu vaccine relies on identifying each strain of the flu and how it will “attack,” we can defeat the Yetzer Harah if we identify how it will attack. We can ignore our weaknesses and be surprised when the sucker punch comes, or we can make an effort to identify our weakness. If we can acknowledge the challenges that exist in our generation as well as our personal shortcomings then we can be prepared.
Similarly, when going into an interview, it is important to know yourself and be real with yourself. Its o.k, to not meet the ideal candidate profile – those things are usually exaggerated. But know where you are weak in your resume and skills vis a vis the job, and be prepared to discuss it during your interview.
If you can demonstrate, that you are prepared, know where you need to grow, and have a plan to be successful despite any shortcomings, you will be successful. Don’t hide from your weakness, attack them head on.
Simcha Himmel is communications associate for the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC). Find out more about OU-JLIC at UCLA. Simcha was Student Government President in college and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a commendation for excellence in marketing. He studied abroad at Bircas HaTorah in Jerusalem’s old city. Simcha was the youth director at the Young Israel of East Brunswick, and was also involved in East Brunswick’s NCSY and Bnei Akiva chapters. Simcha helped Touro College launch its social media department and is a contributor to several publications including the Forward. He enjoys reading, following sports and Marvel movies; and lists California’s Yosemite National Park as one of his 3 favorite places in the world.