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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome. (32:29)

Yaakov Avinu emerged triumphant after his struggle with Eisav's guardian angel. Before departing, the angel told Yaakov that he would receive an additional name, Yisrael, a name which implies strength and superiority. Rashi explains that when the angel asked Yaakov for his name it was a rhetorical question. He was actually relating to Yaakov that he was entitled to Eisav's blessing. No longer would he go by the name "Yaakov," a name which implies deceit. The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, explains this further. He reflects on the blessings which Yaakov received from Yitzchak, wondering why the circumstances had evolved the way that they did. Why did Rivkah Imenu have to instruct Yaakov to dress in Eisav-like clothes, employing guile-and perhaps deceit-to receive the berachos, blessings? Surely, there could have been a more dignified manner to secure the berachos.

The Rebbe explains that parnassah, earning a livelihood, has become more difficult with each ensuing generation. Indeed, in contemporary society, the challenges and trials that prevail can, at times, challenge one's spiritual stature. It is quite disheartening to observe how those who are far removed from a Torah lifestyle have succeeded in amassing great material wealth, while those who are dedicated to Hashem's Torah often live in abject poverty. With the extreme pressures of today's society, this can serve to distance one from Torah observance. Rivkah was suggesting this to Yitzchak when she sent Yaakov dressed in Eisav's clothes. She was telling Yitzchak, "Do you think our son Yaakov will be able to continue studying in the tents of Torah forever? How long will he be able to live in poverty while his brother Eisav lives off the fat of the land? The pressure might compel Yaakov to adopt a lifestyle suitable to Eisav. He might begin to dress like he does, speak like he does, and, ultimately, live like he does."

This was not the way, however, that Yaakov should have been blessed. He should not have received the blessing from a negative perspective, by default, simply because otherwise, he might defect and become like Eisav. Yitzchak should have given Yaakov the blessing as a reflection of Hashem's love for him, in an effort to provide him with all his needs. Even though he might not have been worthy, he should have been sustained. Is that not what a father would do for a son?

This is the underlying meaning of Rashi's words. The name Yaakov implies weakness. He received the blessings because otherwise he might have gone "off the derech," turning away from the prescribed faith as dictated by Hashem. No! The blessings were secured as Yisrael, a name signifying strength and sovereignty. This idea asserts that the Patriarch received the blessings from a positive position, because he was worthy of this gift. Eisav's angel conveyed this message to Yaakov. He had triumphed over Eisav, and over everything Eisav represented. He was now Yisrael. We are his descendants. May we be worthy of his name.

No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome. (32:29)

The names "Yaakov" and "Yisrael" allude to two distinct periods in the spiritual condition of our People. Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, presents an historical perspective based upon these two names. The name Yisrael, symbolizing strength and sovereignty, was evident in the period of "hod," glory, in the life of our nation: when Torah and mitzvah went side by side; when their study and observance were part and parcel of every Jew's "weltenshaung;" when faith in the Almighty beat in everyone's heart. A period of "shiflus," lowliness, was manifest in our nation: when we descended to the nadir of depravity; when many of our people, regrettably, turned their backs on their faith and ultimately on their Father in Heaven, when we attempted to acculturate and assimilate, striving to act like the nations around us. The name Yaakov was applicable during this latter period.

Chazal have taught us, "Yisrael, af al pi she'cha'tah, Yisrael hu," "Even though a Jew has sinned, he is still considered to be a Jew." Regardless of how deep we have descended, how far we have declined, we remain Hashem's nation; we are still considered Jews. The nations of the world are still by far more spiritually and morally deficient than we. During such a period, our People are not worthy of the name Yisrael, but we are still Jews; we are "Yaakov." The name Yaakov is taken from "his hand was grasping onto the akeiv, heel, of Eisav." Only as a result of the spiritual and moral dysfunction of Eisav's descendants, are we still considered to be the sons of Yaakov. In other words, it is not our own attributes, which have earned us this name. Rather, we are called Yaakov as a consequence of our relative superiority over Eisav.

David HaMelech says in Sefer Tehillim, 66:7, "He rules in His might forever, His eyes oversee the nations." When Hashem is about to judge Klal Yisrael with middas hadin, strict attribute of justice, He looks at the nations, at their abominable lifestyle, at their reprehensible activities and immoral behavior. He sees the vast distinction between their way of life and ours. Even after he has fallen prey to sin, the Jew is still on a much higher moral / spiritual plane than the members of the other nations.

This is the profound meaning of the Kohen Gadol's prayer on Yom Kippur, "A year in which Your people, the family of Yisrael, is not dependent upon one another, or upon another people." He implored Hashem that Klal Yisrael never be in the condition to be compared to the nations of the world. It should never happen that our only line of defense, our only justification for being sustained, is our relative good in comparison to the nations of the world. We ask Hashem for a year in which our own maasim tovim, good deeds, and positive behavior are our greatest advocates. Our splendor and majesty should justify our continued relationship with Hashem. When Yaakov Avinu triumphed over Eisav's guardian angel, he was blessed with the name "Yisrael." The majesty and splendor of Klal Yisrael should always be on a level to deserve the name that signifies strength and sovereignty. We should be worthy of Hashem's beneficence based upon our own merit - the merit of Yisrael.

Then Yaakov inquired, and he said, "Divulge, if you please, your name." And he said, "Why then do you inquire of my name?" (32:30)

Rashi explains that an angel exists only to perform Hashem's will, and his "name" reflects his mission. By asking the angel for his name, Yaakov Avinu sought to determine the nature of his mission. The angel replied that he had no established name, since the names of angels change in accordance with their mission. Horav Leib Chasman, zl, posits that when the angel responded, "Why then do you inquire of my name?" it was a rhetorical question, constituting his response to Yaakov's query.

A person's name indicates his essence and true nature. Adam HaRishon gave names to all of the animals. He understood their intrinsic natures and "personalities," and he named them accordingly. He perceived their positive attributes that defined their essence, and he gave them names which corresponded to those characteristics. When we deal with evil, when we address the nature of kinaah, taavah, v'kavod - envy, lust and honor-traits that catalyze one's untimely spiritual - and, oftentimes, physical-demise, there is no essence, there is no internal nature. Evil has no foundation, no stability, no permanent basis. It is fleeting, as Shlomo Hamelech refers to the folly of life as "haveil havalim," "futility of futilities." He understood that the pleasures and allures of this world are passing and of no lasting value. When we examine the true nature of kavod, honor, we realize that it is all imaginary, truly "futility of futilities." Why would we care about its "name," if it has no essence? Eisav's guardian angel, alias Satan, also known as the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is well aware of the truth. He represents futility; he symbolizes illusion and delusion. He is nothing. He answers Yaakov, "Why would you ask my name?" A non-entity is not deserving of a name.

So Yaakov called the name of the place Peniel…the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel… (32:31,32)

Horav Yosef Konvitz, zl, one of the early pioneers of Orthodoxy in America, applied this pasuk to explain the dismal state of Jewish observance in the early part of the twentieth century. Most Jews at the time viewed every aspect of religious life with a haphazard, begrudging, even antagonistic attitude. Many were ignorant of Torah law. Some even acted l'hachis, deliberately transgressing Torah and mitzvos for profit or power. Kashrus, which in Europe was accepted by everybody, was unreliable at best. America was devoid of spiritual hope, posing an alarming threat to Torah-based Judaism. The European immigrants who came to the American exile, quickly became acculturated, adopting the attitudes and lifestyles of American life while retaining minimal ties to Judaism. As time went on, they assimilated into the American mainstream, ignoring their religious background and upbringing.

This was the scene that confronted the Torah Jew. What was he to do? Indeed, why was the American galus, exile, different from the previous exiles to which the Jewish people had been subjected? Never in our history had so many rejected the ways of their ancestors. Was America different, or were we different?

Horav Konvitz suggests that the answer to this riddle lies in Yaakov Avinu's struggle with Eisav's guardian angel and the apparent change in the name of the place in which their struggle occurred: from "Peniel" to "Penuel." When Yaakov was confronted with the challenge of finally coming face to face with his estranged brother, Eisav, he took his children, and "he brought them across the stream." He was separated from his children. The Torah states, "and Yaakov was left alone." He was without his children, and his children were without their father. Being alone, away from the support of his children, "a man wrestled with him." Eisav's angel succeeded in detaining Yaakov all night until dawn, causing his children to be alone, without direction, without protection all through the night.

At first, Yaakov did not notice any change. Indeed, he was full of joy at having triumphed over Eisav's evil. Furthermore, he had spared his children from this frightful encounter. He, therefore, referred to the place as "Peniel," which means, "I saw Hashem and He turned to me, and saved me." Regrettably, his joy was short lived. When he saw the light of day, when the sun shone brightly illuminating the sky with its brilliance, Yaakov experienced a shock. He realized that leaving his children alone all through the bleak darkness of the night was a grave error. The chasm and void that now existed between these two generations was enormous. Suddenly, the "Peniel" transformed to "Penuel," which means, "they (to his children) turned away." Yaakov was now "limping on his hip;" there was a hindrance in his ability to move, a rift had developed between him and his children.

This exposition of Yaakov's encounter with the angel, and consequent alienation from his children, is a homiletic exegesis. It, nevertheless, conveys a profound perspective on the significance of intergenerational relationship, the importance of parents and children maintaining a bond that is inseparable. The American exile was unique in comparison to our People's past exiles. In the past, entire families were always banished - together. We went as a People, we were driven out as a community. The heritage of the past went with us to our new home. Parents were not separated from their children, and children were not separated from their parents. Despite the bitterness of the exile, the persecution and pain not-withstanding, parents were present to guide, encourage and inspire their children. Chazal's dictum, "Everywhere Klal Yisrael was exiled, the Shechinah went with them," applied. We may add that parents need and thrive on having their children with them. More often than not, a parent will refrain from acting inappropriately out of respect for, and in deference, to his children. One who does not is manifesting significant relational issues.

The American exile separated families. In some instances, the parents remained in Europe while the children came to these shores to make a "better" life for themselves. Indeed, in most cases the material aspect of their lives changed drastically. Because there was no parental support and guidance, however, their spiritual dimension was destroyed. In other situations, the father came to America, leaving his children in Europe while he earned enough money to send for them. The children were without their father, and the father was without his children. He would work long, hard hours under the most inhumane conditions to eke out a living. Regrettably, without the support and encouragement of his family, his loneliness and slave-like labor took its toll on his spiritual status-quo. The American exile was an exile that took its toll on our People, precisely because we entered it not as a people, but as lost individuals, without leadership and guidance.

Vignettes on the Parsha

And he said, "If Eisav comes to one camp and destroys it." (32:9)

Daas Chachomim notes that in Hebrew, the "v'hikeihu," and destroys it, is a palindrome, meaning its letters are read the same backward as forward. This signifies that whoever strikes Klal Yisrael will ultimately also suffer harm himself.


"I have been diminished by all the kindnesses." (32:11)

The Lelover Rebbe,zl, explains Yaakov Avinu's words: The fact that I still feel lowly despite experiencing miracles in Lavan's house and encountering angels, is in itself a kindness of the Almighty.


"Rescue me please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav." (32:12)

Toldos Yaakov Yosef cites an analogy from the Midrash. When steel was created the trees understandably began to shake with fear. One "wise" tree remarked to the others, "If your wood will not enter into its metal ax blade, you will have nothing to worry about." This was also Yaakov's fear. If his primary concern was from Eisav, he could survive. The problem was "miyad achi," from my brother. His own Jewish brethren were assimilating and involving themselves with Eisav. They would, unfortunately, become the wood for the ax handle.


For he said, "I will appease him." (32:21)

The Baalei Mussar assert that with a good word it is possible to eliminate a hatred that one has had in his heart for twenty years.


And he kissed him. (33:5)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says it is a halachah, given fact, that Eisav hated Yaakov, but his mercy was warmed at that moment and Eisav kissed him wholeheartedly. Imrei Chein adds a twist to this statement. Eisav has no reason to hate Yaakov other than the fact that it is a halachah. This is one halachah that he observes.


Leah, too, came forward with her children. (33:7)

Yaakov Avinu was later punished for concealing Dinah from Eisav. Perhaps she could have inspired him to change for the good. Interestingly, notes Meorah Shel Torah, Dinah might have been able to achieve something that Yitzchak, Rivkah and Yaakov were not able to accomplish. That is the power of a wife.


They came upon the city unawares. (34:25)

In the context of the pasuk, the word "betach," "unawares", can also be translated as "confident". What was the source of their confidence? Were they not scared of the surrounding nations who would surely come to Shechem's aid? Kli Yakar explains that they knew that once they circumcised the people, no one would support them, because who cares if Jews harm "Jews"?

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