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:
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:
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.