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Parshas Vayishlach

The Struggle and its Reward

The name “Yisroel” was conferred on our forefather Yaakov by Eisav’s angel, the angel of darkness, after a night-long battle.

The words that the malach (angel) told him were “ki sarisa im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal” — for you have striven (or struggled) with the Divine and with man and you have overcome (Bereishis 32:29). The word “sarisa” is derived from the word שרה as in (Hoseah 12:4), “and with his might he fought (שרה) with a Divine Being (reference to Yaakov)”. Yaakov Avinu struggled with the angel, the Divine, and with man — Eisav and Lavan. Alternatively, the word sarisa is also for the lashon of ‘sar’, a high officer, a word that connotes chashivus. Yaakov Avinu was more exalted than angels and man.

The Rambam (Maimonides) compiled what he refers to as the Shloshah Asar Ikkarim, the “Thirteen Fundamental Principles” of the Jewish faith, as derived from the Torah. He refers to these as “the fundamental truths of our religion and its very foundations.” (The Thirteen Principles of faith are recorded in the Rambam’s introduction to Perek Chelek in tractate Sanhedrin.)

The 11th principle of faith is the belief in divine reward and retribution.  The Rambam does not cite a pasuk to support the concept of reward for good deeds, but this theme is expressed many times throughout the Torah.  Some examples include:

  • Shemos (32:32-33) – “‘Now if only You will bear their iniquity (concerning the Golden Calf), but if not, erase my name from Your Book.’ And Hashem responded to Moshe: ‘He who sins against Me will be erased from My Book.'” This affirms that Hashem rewards those who serve him and punishes those who transgress His commandments.
  • Devarim (7:9-10) – “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is Hashem, the steadfast, who keeps His gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him – never slow with those who reject Him but requiting them instantly.”
  • Reward and punishment is also the basis of the second paragraph of the Shema (Devarim.11:13–21). Adherence to Hashem’s commandments will bring “the rain of the land in its seasons”; disobedience will cause Him “to shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and the land will not yield its fruit.”

When we fulfill a divine commandment, we are fulfilling our obligation to Hashem.  It is for this reason alone that we were created.  By doing mitzvahs we are doing our duty and fulfilling our entire purpose in life.  It cannot be that we are rewarded purely for doing that which is incumbent on us to do.  Logically, this argument is sound.  We can look at the heavenly angels as proof.  They do not receive any reward for their service of Hashem, so why should we receive any reward when we do His bidding?

The answer is that the rewards we get are due to our struggle against the Yetzer Hara (“evil inclination”) – a challenge the angels do not have.  Hashem created the Yetzer Hara to test us and tempt us every moment of our lives.  It causes us to lust after and desire evil.  It allows improper thoughts, Heaven forbid. When we guard ourselves against lies, licentious, debauchery, desire, passions, and sinful thoughts, our efforts are rewarded, for it is an arduous and constant task.  In fact, wrestling with the Yetzer Hara is such a great ordeal that the holy sefarim consider it an act akin to fasting.

Later in the parsha (Bereishis 33:19) the pasuk tells us that Yaakov Avinu bought property.  “Vayikan es chelkas hasadah asher natah Sham ohalo m’yad bnei Chamor avi Shechem b’meah kshitah” — and he bought the parcel of the field where he had spread his tent, from the hand of the children of Chamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money.

Reb Yaakov Yoseph of Ostraha (1738-1791), wrote a sefer called Reb Yaavi, (the acronym of Yaakov Yoseph ben Yehudah).  He was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezhritch.  He explains this pasuk based on the idea that men are rewarded by Hashem because of their struggle with the Yetzer Hara. He interprets the above verse homiletically:

  • “And he bought the parcel of the field” – refers to the known field, the world to come, Gan Eden.  In parsha Toldos, when Yaakov Avinu entered his father’s presence, it is written that Yitzchak Avinu “smelled the fragrance of his garments and blessed him.”  He said, “the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of the field which Hashem had blessed.”  Rashi understands that this refers to the scent of Gan Eden that entered with Yaakov Avinu.
  • “Where he had spread his tent” – refers to service of Hashem in this temporary world, which is likened to a tent. It means to tell us that Yitzchock perceived that his son was deserving of a share in the next world due to his service of Hashem in this world.
  • “From the hand of the children of Chamor” – “Chumriyos”, the physical dimension. is the source of the evil Yetzer’s desires.  A person gains reward because of the “chomer” – the gross physicality of the body.  Desires and lusts after forbidden pursuits come from the physical body.  By breaking and overcoming these desires we are deserving of reward. That is what the pasuk means when it says “avi Shechem” (the father of Shechem). The word Shechem can also mean portion, as it written, “Va-ani nusatti le’cho Scheem ached all achecha.” – and I have given you an extra portion more than I have given your brothers (Bereishis 48:22).  “Chamor, the father of Shechem,” can now be read as meaning the “chomer”, raw physical existence and avi Shechem, the father, meaning the cause of our portion in the next world.
  • “For a hundred pieces of money” – Rav Yaavi says that this refers to the hundred brachos that we are required to make every day. Many of the brachos are related to physical things.  By saying the appropriate bracha, we elevate our desire for physical things and bring them to serve Hashem, making us deserving of reward.

The malach that Yaakov Avinu fought was in essence telling him this. ” Sarisa” in both senses of the word. You have both struggled and became elevated – “For you have struggled with me the Yetzer Hara and overcome.” This is the reason that you are a “sar” (an exalted one). Yaakov had accomplished his mission in this world.  He struggled with the Yetzer Hara and won; and thereby became an exalted being.

This struggle against evil is the life purpose of every Jew.  In this world, our choice is not whether or not to engage in this conflict, for the battle against the Yetzer Hara defines our very existence. Our choice is limited only to the question of whether or not we shall prevail.  We are called Bnei Yisroel, children of the struggle, and it is through our struggles between with evil that we become exalted.