> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Esav's Adaptable Angel

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

It's hard to know your enemy.

"Then Yaakov asked, and he said, 'Please tell me your name.' And he said, 'Why then do you inquire of my name'? And he blessed him there." (Bereishit, 32:30)

"We do not have a fixed name, our names change according to the current mission that we are sent on." (Rashi, 32:30, Dh)

After Yaakov was successful in his seminal battle with the Angel, the Angel asked Yaakov his name, and when he answered, the Angel told him that his name would now be known as Yisrael. Yaakov then asked the Angel for his name, but the Angel refused to answer and asked why Yaakov was asking him his name. Rashi explains that the Angel was saying that Angels have no set name; their names are dependent upon the current mission that they have been sent on.

There are two basic questions on this episode. Firstly, why was is so important for Yaakov to know the Angel's name? Secondly, we do in fact know the name of this Angel! The Sages tell us that he was the Guardian Angel of Esav, which is also known as the Satan and which represents the yetzer hara (negative inclination). If so, why, according to Rashi, did Esav's angels say that his name changes according to his mission?

When Yaakov asked the Angel for his name, he wasn't simply trying to ascertain a way to identify the Angel. Rather, we know that that the name of something defines its essence. Accordingly, when Yaakov asked the Angel his name, he was asking what was his essence? In this way, he was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the yetzer hara and the challenges it would pose to his descendants.

The Angel replied by telling him that it does not help to know his essence because there is no one aspect of the yetzer hara that he would have to conquer. He was saying that his essence is that he adapts to the times and circumstances to pose the exact spiritual challenge that the Jewish people as a whole, and each Jew as an individual, will face throughout the generations.[1] Sometimes he would come in the form of false ideologies such as Hellenism or Communism, at other times he will come in the form of challenges such as technological advances that can be used for the good or the bad.

On a more personal level, the Talmud in Chullin[2] alludes to two different ways that the yetzer hara works. The Talmud brings a dispute as to the appearance of the Angel in his struggle with Yaakov. One opinion holds that he appeared to Yaakov like an idol worshipper, and the other holds that he appeared in the guise of a Torah scholar. Rabbi Yissachar Frand explains that the yetzer hara can be both; there is no one definition and no one battle plan.

Let's understand on a deeper level what these two manifestations represent. The idol worshipper aspect of the yetzer hara is not too difficult to comprehend. He encourages us to weaken in our Torah observance by preventing us from doing mitzvot. But what does the Torah scholar aspect of the yetzer hara do?

Rabbi Frand answers based on the prayer we say in Maariv: "May you remove the Satan from before us and from behind us". "Before us" refers to how the Satan stands in front of us to block us from doing mitzvot. "Behind us" refers to how, on occasion, the Satan deems it necessary to stand behind us and actually pushes us to do mitzvot. There are times when a person undergoes a significant, positive transformation and takes on new aspects of Torah observance. This is obviously a great thing, and the yetzer hara is unable to prevent him from progressing, but it does not just stand idly by and let the person continue unimpeded. Rather, it tries to make the person change too fast or take on too much in one go, instead of following the sensible approach of step-by-step growth. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people beginning the path of Torah observance to face the yetzer hara of moving too fast and then at some point, feeling overburdened by their new commitments.

The yetzer hara makes a particular effort to prevent a Jew from Torah learning as that is the basis of our whole Divine service. For some, it suffices to distract them in various ways, but it can also utilize the aspect of being "behind us" -- by pushing a person to overexert themselves in their learning to the extent that they burn out or become ill from not getting enough rest.[3]

The yetzer hara doesn't have one single approach, rather it adapts to the times and circumstances, and according to each individual. Every person needs to zero in on the particular areas where his yetzer hara is challenging him.


1. The basis of this answer was heard from Rav Yissachar Frand shlit'a, in the name of Rav Chaim Dov Heller, shlit'a.
2. Chullin, 91a.
3. Needless to say, that the more relevant aspect of the yetzer hara with regard to learning, is to reduce our learning, not to make us do too much.


Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,899

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram