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The Name of the Angel

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

And Yaakov asked, and said, "What is your name please?" and [the angel] replied, "Why do you ask my name?" (Gen. 32:30)

Throughout the night, Yaakov struggled with the angel of Eisav, and he was victorious. Toward morning, the angel asks Yaakov to release him, but Yaakov refuses unless the angel blesses him. The angel informs Yaakov that his name will be changed to Yisrael. "And what is your name?" Yaakov asks the angel. But the angel's only response is a cryptic question, "Why do you ask my name?"

What is the implication of this dialogue?

According to our Sages, this angel was the guardian angel of Eisav, also known as Satan, also known as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Rav Leib Chasman explains that, since the name of a person or being reflects his essence, when Yaakov asked the angel for his name he was actually trying to discover his essence. He was actually saying, "What are you all about, yetzer hara? What makes you tick? What is the secret of your power over people?"

And the angel replied, "Why do you ask my name?" In other words, explains Rav Leib Chasman, there is no point in asking this question. The yetzer hara is not a reality, only a figment of the imagination. It is an image that is conjured in the mind when a person is consumed by desire. But in reality, there is no separate entity called the yetzer hara. It is the person himself.

Sometimes, a person lies in the dark and sees huge shadows forming on the wall. He is terrified. Perhaps it is a bear, or an intruder. But then he flicks on the light and sees that it was nothing, only his own overactive imagination. This is the yetzer hara, a shadow in the night, a figure of fantasy, without reality, without essence. And when you flick on the light, you discover that nothing was there in the first place.

Rav Chaim Dov Keller offers a different interpretation of the dialogue between Yaakov and the angel. He interprets Yaakov's question along the same lines as does Rav Chasman. Yaakov wanted to know the essence of the yetzer hara, because he wanted to forewarn his descendants and fortify them against this formidable foe.

"Why do you ask my name?" the angel replied. "It is a pointless endeavor to prepare your descendants for their encounters with me. My mission is to test people, and in order to do this, I change form in every generation. The situations change, the temptations change, and I change. In one generation, the temptation may be idol worship, and that is where I concentrate my efforts. In another generation, it may be the heresies of so-called enlightenment, and that is where I concentrate my efforts. I am always taking on a different form and changing my essence. Telling what my name is now would not help your descendants in the future."

In our own times, it seems to me, the changed form of the yetzer hara is the pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasures. Materialism is the bane of our generation. And that chameleon known as the yetzer hara is working actively to promote it.

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