Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )
Bereishis, 32:19 “And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”
Bereishit Rabbah, 77:1 “And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him: ‘Ein Kakel Yeshurun…’ – R’Brachia in the name of R’Yehuda Bar Simon says, [this can be read as saying] ‘there is no-one like Kel (Hashem) but who is like Kel – Yeshurun…who is like Kel, Yisrael Sabbah (our grandfather, Yaakov), just as by the Holy One, Blessed be He, it is written, ‘and Hashem will be elevated alone’, so too [by Yaakov it says] ‘and Yaakov remained alone’.”
The Torah relates how Yaakov was alone when he was confronted by Esav’s Angel. The Midrash makes a startling point – it cites a verse in the Torah that teaches that nobody compares to God, yet then homiletically derives from the verse that the Jewish people are comparable to God. The Midrash then cites a number of examples of great deeds that God does or will do and how great Jewish people, in particular the Prophet Eliyahu, have performed such actions. The Midrash teaches that just as God will bring the dead back to life, so too Eliyahu brought someone back to life. Just like God has the ability to cause a drought, so too Eliyahu caused a drought. Just like God can bless a small quantity and make it into a large amount, so too, Eliyahu blessed a small quantity and made it into a large amount. Just like God can make barren women have children, Eliyahu made barren women have children. Finally, the Midrash concludes its list of comparisons between God and the righteous of Israel with the statement, “Just as God is alone, as it is written, ‘v’Nisgav Hashem L’vado baYom haHu1’ – Hashem will be elevated alone on that day, so too the ‘Jewish Grandfather’ Yaakov Avenu (Yaakov our father) – remained alone as it is written ‘and Yaakov remained alone’.”
Rabbi Yissachar Frand points out that this last example does not seem to fit into the pattern of the earlier items. The Midrash cites supernatural and miraculous situations such as resurrection, stopping the rain, barren women conceiving, and so forth that are indeed acts which require G-d-like abilities. However, the Midrash is saying that God’s ability to be alone is itself a God-like quality! In some way, Yaakov remaining alone was itself as miraculous as resurrection, as cessation of rainfall, and as conception for a barren woman. What is so incredible about the fact that Yaakov was alone?
Rabbi Frand gives an answer to this question, based on the approach of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky.2
In the words of Rabbi Frand:
“Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky says…that the reason Yaakov Avinu (our father) was attacked when he was alone is because most human beings are unable to maintain their spiritual level and stature when they are alone. Most people need a support system, a society, a ‘chevra’ to keep them on the straight and narrow path of righteous behavior. To go it all alone, without peer pressure and peer support, without losing one’s ‘level’ (madreigah) is a phenomenon which is extremely difficult for the average person to attain.”
According to this explanation, the uniqueness of Yaakov’s state of being alone was that he was totally independent in his own Divine Service and did not need any support from others, and in this way, he resembled God who is totally independent in every way. Of course, this is a very high level, which is not attainable for most people. Moreover, a person should not in fact strive to be alone – family, friends and community are an essential aspect of one’s service of God and well-being in general. However, in the past few years, with the onset of the corona crisis, life turned upside down for everyone, and one of the most significant manifestations of this change was the fact that our whole communal structure was uprooted for several months – shuls were closed, schools were shut, and the normal interactions between people was severely curtailed. Many Sages made suggestions as to what aspects of our service of God needed to be improved upon, given the situation that Divine Providence had placed us in.
One well-known Rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, addressed this aspect of the crisis. In reaction to this, he wrote the following3:
“Who am I as an individual? That is a question that this experience should force us to ask ourselves. We’re used to davening and learning under the broad umbrella of community, and looking at everyone around us and following along. We have become used to thinking that our Yiddishkeit is healthy and robust. But – especially in the darkest times of this pandemic – when we’re on our own, a lot of us saw that our Yiddishkeit might not be what we thought it was. One therefore should honestly examine, ‘How much of my service of God came up lacking when there was no community around me?’ So too, we as a community need to think about the fact that as strong as we appear to be, it does not take much to shake us. And we as educators need to ask, ‘Are we building students strong enough to have what it takes to stand on their own then they have to’.”
Thankfully, for most people, the communal aspect has basically returned to normal, yet Rabbi Lopiansky’s words remain highly pertinent. The communal nature of Judaism is essential and of great value. Yet a person’s level should be independent of others. Many commentaries say that this is the meaning of the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers, “And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”.4 If a person does not have spiritual support, he should take responsibility for his own service of God.
May we merit, at least on some level, to emulate Yaakov Avinu, and indeed, HaShem Himself, in becoming ‘alone’, independent of others and as a spiritually strong individual.
- Yeshaya, 2:11; 2:21.
- Emes L’Yaakov, 32:19. Also, see Ohr Gedliyahu, ibid for an in-depth approach to this Midrash.
- With Hebrew terms translated to English.
- Avos, 2:6. See Rabbeinu Yonah, Midrash Shmuel, ibid.