"Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25).
The Midrash expounds on this verse that it was no mere wrestling match between our forefather Jacob and a Hulk Hogan-like competitor. Rather, the man/angel who fought with our ancestor Jacob was none other than the Sar Shel Eisav, the “patron spirit” of his twin brother Esau, whose aim was to destroy the Jewish people and the “G-d-consciousness” that they manifest in the world.
We can ask an obvious question: If this patron angel of Esau was out to destroy the Jewish nation, why did he not attack Abraham, the very first Jew, or Isaac, the first Jew's son, and thus eliminate the forces of good as soon as they appeared instead of waiting to attack Jacob?
Irving Bunim, in his wide-ranging commentary Ethics from Sinai on Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), offers the following penetrating answer in the name of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman ZT”L, the great pre-war Torah sage:
The Patriarchs were the first great exemplars of the concepts of Torah (Jewish education), Avodah (worship and prayer), and Gemillus Chasadim (acts of kindness).
Abraham epitomized kindness and charity. This did not disturb the patron spirit of Esau. Philanthropy alone is harmless. With charity alone, with people who are Jews only by virtue of philanthropy, you will not build a nation or perpetuate a people. There is nothing distinctive about acts of kindness. With nothing but kindness, Jewry will disintegrate; the seed of Abraham will disappear. The spirit of Esau saw no reason yet to attack.
Similarly, when Isaac appeared, and with him the concepts of worship and prayer, the spirit of Esau was not concerned either. Synagogue services alone do not establish a Jewish people. Let Isaac stand in the synagogue and pray. His children can be induced to wander the streets and seek their pleasure elsewhere. The old folks can have their synagogues and prayer. In a generation or two it will be forgotten.
When the spirit of evil, however, saw Jacob dwelling in his tent, studying Torah, he realized that this is the true secret of Jewish continuity. With Jewish education, Judaism has a future. With Torah, with Yeshivas and Day Schools, you can insure the next generation and build an eternal people! The spirit of Esau found it necessary to attack only Jacob.
This powerful lesson that we learn from “the first wrestling match in history” is especially relevant in our own times, when we are once again under attack from the “patron spirit of Esau”. Antisemitism is rearing its ugly head, assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, and the very existence and continuity of the Jewish people is in jeopardy.
We would be wise to remember that which was apparently obvious to the patron spirit of Esau … that the secret of our survival as a nation lies in the fact that we have always been the “People of the Book” - not just the People of the Checkbook or the People of the Prayer Book, but, most importantly, the People of the Five Books of Moses - the Torah and the wisdom for life contained within it.
And let us never forget that it is not antisemitism or intermarriage, but ignorance of our own Torah and Jewish heritage that is the greatest threat facing our people today.
As Jacob, our Patriarch, wrestled with the spirit of Esau and ultimately prevailed, so, too, will all of us, his children, survive and thrive as a nation by following his lead and educating ourselves and our children with Torah and all its beautiful lessons and life-impacting wisdom.
[Sources: Ethics from Sinai by Irving M. Bunim, Feldheim Publishers]