November 28, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1095, Parsha Thought, VaYishlach


When Jacob returned home, after a hiatus of 22 years, he travelled with a large entourage of family members, servants and livestock. As they approached the end of their journey, Jacob was told that Esau was coming with 400 armed men to confront him.

The Torah describes Jacob’s reaction: “very worried and pained…”

The Midrash comments on Jacob’s fear and G-d’s reassurance to him:

“At that moment Jacob raised his eyes and saw Esau coming from afar. So he turned his eyes to Heaven, wept and pleaded for mercy from the Holy One, blessed is He.

G-d heard his prayer and promised him that He would save him from all his troubles in Jacob’s merit, as it is stated (Psalm 20), ‘May G-d answer you on the day of distress; may the name of Jacob’s G-d fortify you.’”

Commentators wonder why the Midrash writes that G-d told Jacob that He would save him in the merit of Jacob. Why not say that G-d would save him in his merit? After all, G-d is speaking to Jacob, about Jacob.

What follows is an explanation adapted from the Chassidic work, Arugas Habosem, which raises an additional question based on the verse from Psalm 20 cited in the Midrash. What does the Psalmist mean when he says, “may the name of Jacob’s G-d fortify you?” What message is the Psalmist trying to convey by saying “the name of Jacob’s G-d” rather than just “Jacob’s G-d will fortify you.”


To answer this question, we have to refer to a later moment in this parsha, when Jacob was left alone and a “man” attacked him. After wrestling all night, the “man,” who is identified as Esau’s guardian angel, wanted to escape Jacob’s grip but Jacob refused to let him go unless the angel blessed him. The angel asked his name and Jacob told him.

The angel then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying:

“Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but rather Israel because you have fought with [an angel of] G-d and with people and you have overcome them.”

In a subsequent passage, G-d reiterates the renaming of Jacob but with one significant modification. Instead of saying “Your name will no longer be called Jacob,” G-d says:

“Your name is Jacob. You will no longer be named Jacob. Rather, Israel shall be your name. And He named him Israel.”

Note the difference. The angel clearly states that he will no longer be called Jacob; only Israel. G-d, by contrast, prefaces the name change with the words “your name is Jacob.” The Talmud takes this to mean that the name Jacob was not terminated, as was the name Abram upon the change of his name to Abraham.

This raises an obvious question.

The angel was certainly not biased in Jacob’s favor. After all, it was the guardian angel of Esau; his advocate, in a life and death struggle with Jacob. Why then would he want to eliminate the name Jacob, which has some “negative” connotations? In last week’s parsha, Esau himself said, when he realized that Jacob had cleverly appropriated his father’s blessings, that it was now clear why his brother was named Jacob since the name Jacob implies deception.

Yet, Esau’s angel completely erased the name Jacob while G-d, who had a “bias” for Jacob, preserved the apparently inferior name Jacob! Indeed, throughout the rest of the Torah, our Patriarch is referred to mostly as Jacob; only occasionally is he referred to as Israel.

Why was the angel more supportive of Jacob’s new name, Israel, than G-d Himself?


Arugas Habosem explains the significance of the names of Jacob and Esau. The name Jacob can also be translated as the “end.” Unlike Esau, whose name denotes “complete” because he was born with all his bodily hair, Jacob was born with a view towards the end. His work was cut out for him. His efforts would last a lifetime. There would be no automatic growth. Jacob would spend the rest of his life reaching toward the goal of self-refinement and rise continually to ever higher levels of devotion to G-d.

Esau, on the other hand, was born more or less complete. He was compared to an animal that is born, basically, with all of its potential close to being realized. One cannot expect any dramatic changes or spiritual growth from the Esau’s of the world.

The angel, sensing this very positive aspect of Jacob’s life, wanted to deprive him of this naming asset. The angel, therefore, wanted to eliminate not just the name Jacob but, more importantly, his continual striving for perfection. The angel wanted Jacob to think that he, too, was complete and had no need to progress in his spiritual life.

If the angel’s plan had come to fruition, Jacob would have lost his distinctiveness and could not have transmitted the power of positive change to his children and their descendants. The Jewish nation that would emerge from him would be similarly limited in its ability to transform themselves and the entire world.

If that were to happen, the struggle between Jacob and Esau would have been won by Esau. The Jewish people would dwell forever in a Galus-exile state; in a perpetual holding pattern.

G-d therefore told Jacob that, while He renamed him Israel, his name Jacob would always remain. No matter how many victories he and his progeny, the Jewish people, would win, he and they would always be striving towards the end; never feeling they have reached a spiritual zenith leaving no possibility for further growth. The Jewish people will always retain the impetus to grow.

We are Israel; masters of our fate. We can overcome any and all obstacles. But, we are also Jacob; never feeling smug, complacent or resting on our laurels.


This explains the verse from the Psalms cited by the Midrash: “May G-d answer you on the day of distress; may the name of Jacob’s G-d fortify you.”

The meaning of “the name of Jacob’s G-d” is that it refers to the name that G-d preserved in Jacob, in contradistinction to the name that the angel gave him.

The Psalmist refers to a Jew who is in distress. He feels helpless. When he examines his own spiritual state, he sees how wanting he is; he feels undeserving of G-d’s kindness. So, he cries out to G-d for His salvation in his time of distress.

The Psalmist came to comfort this individual by saying that as a Jew he is connected to the name Jacob; the name G-d did not change. If a Jew looks at the end, the pinnacle, and has the desire to grow in his or her Judaism, G-d sees the Jew’s intention to grow. He then looks positively at the Jew even before he reaches his goal and is willing to take him out of his distress.


This then is the meaning of the Midrashic comment cited at the beginning of this essay. “G-d heard his prayer and promised him that He would save him from all his troubles in Jacob’s merit.”

The question was asked why it said “in Jacob’s merit” rather than just “in his merit.”

The answer is that G-d wanted Jacob to know that He was saving him in the merit of his constant striving for perfection; that he was a “Jacob.” No matter how low Jacob felt he had fallen, G-d says to him, “I will help you because you are focused on the end. You have not given up striving to grow and reaching the goal.”


We may take the approach of the Arugas Habosem and give it a slightly different twist to make it apply to our situation today.

The name Jacob, as was stated, implies the end. It also alludes to the “End of Days,” the Messianic Era.

Esau’s angel wanted nothing less than for Jews to be focused on the here and now, just as Esau was when he sold the birthright. He said “I am going to die, why do I need the birthright?”. This meant that Esau was only concerned with his immediate need to satisfy his hunger with the lentils.

By eliminating the name Jacob, Esau’s angel wanted to get Jews to forget about realizing the Final Redemption. Instead, Esau’s angel effectively says to us: “Forget about Moshiach and focus exclusively on the present. Even if you want to learn Torah and do Mitzvos, do not connect it to the future. Be focused only on the present.”

In truth, we also hold the belief that a Jew has to be totally immersed in his or her spiritual life in the present moment, but not at the expense of forgetting the goal of reaching the Geula.

The Psalmist’s statement about the verse “the name of the G-d of Jacob” can also be understood to mean the end of days, the Messianic Era. We will then be relieved of all our distress. Moreover, when we demonstrate that we have never lost faith in the coming of Moshiach and always labor toward that end, G-d will help us now, in these last moments of Galus.

Living a Moshiach-oriented life is not only a way to hasten his coming, it also has an immediate effect; we live now in the atmosphere of Moshiach.

This, then, is what the Midrash means when it says that G-d promised Jacob that he would save him in the merit of “Jacob.” G-d assures us that salvation will come in the merit of the Jew believing in and working towards the “end of days,” this being the trait associated with the name Jacob.


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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