A WONDERING NATION
Rabbi Shmuel Weiss
any incident in the Torah more amazing or perplexing than Jacob’swrestling
match with the angel? Who is this mysterious foe? What are they fighting
about? And why does Jacob ask the angel his name, to which the angel then
cryptically replies, "Why do you ask?"
Is there any incident in the Torah more amazing or perplexing than Jacob’swrestling match with the angel? Who is this mysterious foe? What are they fighting about? And why does Jacob ask the angel his name, to which the angel then cryptically replies, "Why do you ask?"
Our sages inform us that the angel is Esau’s messenger, sent to kill Jacob, who represents the future of the Jewish people. As the master of Torah study, Jacob guarantees Jewish continuity and eternity, thus making him Public Enemy#1 to the forces of evil. But what is the meaning of this strange dialogue between the two wrestlers?
Rabbi Y.L. Chasman of the Chevron Yeshiva in Israel offers a brilliant insight into this whole bizarre scene: He explains that our names indicate our essence. That is why we are so careful about the names we give our children. The Hebrew word "shem -- name" forms the root of the Hebrew word "neshama -- soul".
The Jewish people have always sought out the "name" of things. That is, we seek to discover the truth about life by asking questions about everything we see around us. Why, even Moses begins his mission in Egypt by asking Hashem, "when the Jews will ask me what your name is, what shall I respond?" He means to inquire, "What is the essence of G-d?"
Our whole system of learning is based on asking questions. This is theTalmudic (later called the Socratic) method. We probe, we ask, we seek toclarify, and that is how we arrive at the essential truth of the matter.
Jacob asks Esau’s angel what his name is, seeking to discern his nature. The malevolent angel -- who would destroy Jacob and all future Jews -- answers, "Why do you ask?" This ("why-do-you-ask") is actually the angel’s name! "Why-do-you-ask" is defining his essence, embodied in his strange name. He is saying that evil is nurtured and perpetuated by the failure to ask, by the reluctance to seek out the truth. At the same time, righteousness and a Torah way of life are by-products of asking the right questions.
Jacob defeats the angel, and gives rise to a wondering (not wandering) nation who will forever search for truth through questioning. As the verse (Exodus 13:14) states, "And it shall be if your son will ask tomorrow. . . ." The deeper meaning of this key verse is, "If your son will only ask, then there will be a tomorrow" for the Jewish people. The answer to Jewish survival is in the question.
Rabbi Shmuel Weiss, a close friend of the Torah from Dixie family, is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Rana’ana, Israel.
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