Some of the greatest wars ever fought take place in the depths of hearts and minds. Every day is a fresh battle, every moment a new aspect of a longstanding, never-ending conflict.
It’s hard enough to do what’s right when the decisions we face are clearly defined. But all too often confusion reigns as we wade through murky waters and navigate grey areas.
This week we learn about one of the epic battles of all time, a battle between Yaakov Avinu and the guardian angel of Esav.
In that battle, the sinew on Yaakov Avinu’s hip-socket was displaced, and so forever after his descendants are prohibited from eating that sinew — the gid hanasheh.
The angel of Esav failed in his mission; unable to overcome Yaakov Avinu, he was forced to bless his arch-adversary instead. One would think that the eternal remembrance of this battle would be an act symbolizing victory, rather than one commemorating the injury Yaakov Avinu suffered.
One stirring explanation for this choice is that the ultimate mission of a Jew is to wage a spiritual battle. It isn’t the winning, but the fight that counts!
In the heat of battle a wounded soldier fighting on the front lines might at times be unsure if he is still even alive. There is a way to figure it out: as long as the enemy is aiming arrows at you, you know you are still alive. The Yismach Yisrael of Alexander says the same is true of spiritual battles. On occasion one feels so worn out, pierced and injured that he fears there is no spiritual life left in him. But as long as we are still faced with temptation to do wrong, we can be assured that spiritually we are very much alive. For the evil inclination will not waste his energies on the spiritually deceased.
The parashah begins with Yaakov Avinu dispatching angels to his brother, and continues with the aforementioned battle between Yaakov Avinu — a person whose holiness we can’t fathom, but a human being nonetheless — and an angel.
This suggests the question: Who is greater, man or angel?
The Chofetz Chaim answers with an illuminating parable:
A troop of soldiers secure the king’s palace. Their commander stands resplendent in his gleaming uniform, unmarred by speck of dust or a single wrinkle. The sun reflects from his shiny buttons, and his boots are polished to perfection.
At the country’s border is a special battalion of loyal troops. Savages have repeatedly crossed into the country, leaving a trail of murder and mayhem in their wake, and these troops are now securing the area. They too have a commander, but he is constantly on the go, surveying the terrain, analyzing military strategies. He repeatedly visits the troops in the filed, ensures that they are equipped properly and boosts their morale.
His uniform is creased and splattered with rain and mud, its buttons are dull and grimy. His boots are encrusted with dirt, and his appearance certainly unprepossessing, even unbecoming.
Yet when he visits the royal place to give a regular report, who is feared and honored? The commander of the palace guards may have that royal look; but the border commander, who puts his life on the line for king and country, is the real royal hero.
The angels are indeed resplendent in their fiery “uniforms”; but we, the humans in this temporal world who are waging the war on the front lines, though we may be splattered by mud and even wounded in battle, we continue to fight on. We may fall down, hurt, injured and in pain, but we arise again, and again, determined and emboldened. We realize that setbacks and even defeats is an essential part of the process, and the fact that we do not allow our lows to stop us dramatically adds to our ultimate reward.
Yes, man can reach levels greater than an angels. This is not despite the fact that man lives in such a muddy and murky world — but because of it. The angels, who have no evil inclinations nor temptations, have no opportunity to wage such battles.
Not only can we rise higher than angels, but we actually create the them.
Many have wondered about Yaakov Avinu’s message to Eisov, saying that though he resides with Lavan he did not learn from his evil ways, and kept the 613 mitzvos. Why should Eisov, the icon of evil be interested or impressed with such a statement?
The Sar Shalom of Belz explains that since the angels Yaakov Avinu sent to Lavan were created by his mitzvos — Yaakov Avinu was sending Eisov a powerful message. He informed Eisov that since he kept all 613 mitzvos even while he was with Lavan, those malachim would protect him, which in itself was ample reason for Eisov to fear him.
May the angels we create throughout our mitzvos protect us as we fight on.