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Parashat Vayishlach: "And Ya'akov was Left Alone"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Vayishlach:


"And Ya'akov was left alone"


Rav Itamar Eldar



            In this week's parasha, we read about the marvelous struggle between Ya'akov and the angel. As background information regarding this struggle, the Torah describes a series of actions taken by Ya'akov:


And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two maidservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of Yabok. And he took them, and sent them over the wadi, and sent over that which he had. And Ya'akov was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day (Bereishit 32:23-25).


            Ya'akov sends his entire family across the ford of Yabok, and remains all by himself on the other side.


Scripture does not explain why Ya'akov remains by himself on the other side of the wadi. Are we dealing here with one last thorough search of the abandoned camp to make sure that nobody was forgotten or had forgotten anything? Or perhaps we are dealing here with intentional seclusion meant to allow Ya'akov to prepare for something – prayer, Divine revelation, or the like.


In any event, this seclusion constitutes the background for the appearance of the angel and the struggle with Ya'akov until the breaking of the day.


The expression, "And Ya'akov was left alone [levado]," is similar to another expression found in the prophesy of Yeshaya.


The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone [levado] shall be exalted on that day. (Yeshaya 2:11)


And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low; And the Lord alone [levado] shall be exalted on that day (ibid. v. 11).


            The prophet Yeshaya describes the end of human government and the appearance of God's kingdom in its place. This too is described by the word levado, "alone." Chazal noted the similarity, expounding the verses as follows:


"And Ya'akov was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him." "There is none like the God of Yeshurun, who rides upon the heaven to your help" (Devarim 33:26). R. Berakhya said in the name of R. Yehuda the son of R. Simon: There is none like God, and who is like the God of Yeshurun, the best and the most praised among you. You find that everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, will eventually perform in the future, he performed by way of the righteous in this world. The Holy One, blessed be He, resurrects the dead, and Eliyahu resurrects the dead. The Holy One, blessed be He, withholds rain, and Eliyahu withholds rain. The Holy One, blessed be He, blesses a meager amount, and Eliyahu blesses a meager amount. The Holy One, blessed be He, resurrects the dead, and Elisha resurrects the dead. The Holy One, blessed be He, visits the barren, and Elisha visits the barren. The Holy One, blessed be He, blesses a meager amount, and Elisha blesses a meager amount. The Holy One, blessed be he, sweetens the bitter, and Elisha sweetens the bitter. The Holy One, blessed be He, sweetens the bitter with something bitter, and Elisha sweetens the bitter with something bitter. R. Berakhya said in the name of R. Simon: There is none like God, and who is like the God of Yeshurun. The elder Israel. Just as about the Holy One, blessed be He, it is written (Yeshaya 2): "And the Lord alone shall be exalted," so about Ya'akov is it written: "And Ya'akov remained alone." (Bereishit Rabba 77:1).


The midrash paints a picture according to which many actions that God Himself will perform in the future have already been performed in this world by righteous men.[1] In this framework, the midrash likens Ya'akov's remaining alone to the lone exaltedness of God in the end of days. Chassidic thinkers tried to understand the connection between God's "aloneness" and that of Ya'akov Avinu. We shall try here to examine these ideas.




            There are two paths to take to understand the connection between "And the Lord alone shall be exalted" and "And Ya'akov remained alone."


            On the one hand, we can try to better understand the vision and prophecy describing the end of days in which God alone shall be exalted, and then see what aspects of that prophecy may be found in the situation faced by Ya'akov.


            On the other hand, we can begin with an attempt to understand the psychological state, the consciousness, and the situation that Ya'akov found himself in as he stood on side of the ford of Yabok while his entire family and household were already on the other side, and through that understand the vision of Yeshaya.


R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynov, the author of the Benei Yissachar, follows the first path:


"Who is like the God of Yeshurun." The elder Israel. Just as about the Holy One, blessed be He, it is written: "And the Lord alone shall be exalted" (Yeshaya 2:17) so too Ya'akov: "And Ya'akov remained alone" (Bereishit 32:25)." It seems to me, as it is written with respect to God, blessed be He, "And the Lord alone shall be exalted," that is, without [the] merits [of others], God forbid, and God, blessed be He, will say: "For My own sake, for My own sake, will I do it" (Yeshaya 48:11; see Yalkut Shim'oni, Yeshaya 507), so with respect to Ya'akov, it is stated: "And Ya'akov remained alone." That is, he had sent over all his sons, and when they had been together, their merits would also offer protection. But today he remained alone, and he had only his own merits. It is also possible [to explain]: "And Ya'akov remained alone," for regarding the merits of Avraham and Yitzchak, they were also the fathers of Esav. But it was his merits that stood for him (Igra de-Kala[2] 143a)


            R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira sees God's exaltedness in the end of days as coming at the expense of the fall of the Jewish people, God forbid, in the sense of "Why when I came there was no man?" (Yeshaya 50:2). At first glance, this is a prophecy of rebuke, for it is dealing with a time when, God forbid, the merits of Israel will have come to an end. This is the most difficult and frightening moment imaginable, the moment that the defense counsel rises to plead Israel's case, searches and searches, but finds nothing to say in their defense.


            At that moment, it appears as if this is it for Israel, all hope is gone. But then the other side appears, the more optimistic aspect of the prophecy, according to the interpretation of the Benei Yissachar. "For My own sake, for My own sake, will I do it," says God. Hope is never lost, declares the prophet, because at the basis of the covenant between God and His people there stands a solid column, one that cannot be undermined or altered. God desires the existence of Israel, for they carry His name, and their fall, God forbid, is His fall, as it were, and their rise is His rise. "Do it for Your own sake, if not for our sake" – thus we turn to the Creator in prayer, when we know that "we have no [good] deeds." God's "interest," as it were, that stands at the foundation of Israel's redemption, is the rock of our existence. It provides the consoling certainty that the daughter of Zion will not experience a fall from which it cannot once again rise.


            The Benei Yissachar now turns his attention to Ya'akov Avinu. Ya'akov's aloneness isolates his own personal value from all the contexts in which he lives. First, he is severed from his wife and children, but in the continuation of the passage, it becomes clear that Ya'akov is cut off even from Avraham and Yitzchak.


Ya'akov is all alone, without a past or future, without a tradition or a destiny. His sons – the future people of Israel – take no part in the struggle, just as his forefathers are out of the game. This isolation forces Ya'akov to look inwards. He can rely neither on his fathers nor on his sons. What is now being tested is what he has inside, and the question is whether that is enough.


The words of the Benei Yissachar pose the philosophical and existential question regarding the tension between the individual and society. Does man find his essence in his belonging to society or in his alienation from it? This is the way Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik formulates the issue:


The question is not only socio-economic, but also existential. Was the image of God, the human charisma, bestowed upon man as an individual or as a society? In withdrawal from society or in its company – where does man find his true essence? (Ha-Kehila, p. 225)


            It is precisely Ya'akov's withdrawal from his social context that brings him to the struggle with the angel, where he is forced to expose his essential self, for this is all he has now. From the moment that this essence is exposed, it struggles with the angel, and it is what prevails against him. Just as Israel's falling to the point that they lose all their merits exposes the most fundamental truth standing at the base of their existence – what the Benei Yissachar calls "merit" [zekhut] – so too Ya'akov's remaining alone and being forced to stand by himself against the angel, totally cut off from his surroundings, expose his fundamental truth that is revealed in his new identity: "Your name shall be called no more Ya'akov, but Yisrael."


Most of our lives we stand in a historical context and in a situation of belonging to family, social, and national groups. This belonging has great value, but sometimes it interferes with our ability to stand up against the inner truth that is concealed by the cover of social belonging.


The words of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira invite us to follow in Ya'akov Avinu's footsteps and remain alone, with all the circles to which we belong standing on one side of the Yabok ford and we on the other side. We should not fear aloneness, even if this isolation leads to a difficult struggle. We must believe that we will prevail and that we will emerge from the struggle with a new name that will accompany us upon our return to all that belongs to us and to all that we belong to.




            The Benei Yissachar views "aloneness" as a situation in which a person is cut off from his historical context and from his historical "merit," in order to bring him to stand up against his inner truth. Others, however, relate to this position as one of man standing up against his God. Thus, we find that R. Shemuel of Sochaczew writes in his Shem mi-Shemuel:


According to what has been said, we can understand that "And Ya'akov remained alone" is in the style of "And the Lord alone shall be exalted." The verse "And Ya'akov remained alone" teaches that he was alone without the mediation of the angles of song that were created on the fifth day [of Creation]. And [the verse] "And the Lord alone shall be exalted" teaches [that He will] be alone without the mediation of the angels who bring down the bounty that were created on the second day [of Creation]. For it is regarding this that the term "nisgav" (exalted), which denotes leading and bestowing bounty upon the world, is appropriate. It may be suggested that it is from here that Israel merits on Shabbat nachalat Ya'akov, the legacy of Ya'akov, mentioned in the holy Zohar. For on weekdays, the unity is through the mediation of an angel, whereas on Shabbat, it is unmediated, but rather with the Righteous One, life of the universe (Shem mi-Shemuel[3], Vayishlach, 1878).


            In these words, the Shem mi-Shemuel describes states of mutual connection and relationship between man and God.


            The first is not direct, but assisted by mediation. In this situation, man turns to God through "the angels of song," and God turns to and bestows bounty upon man through "the angels who bring down the bounty."


            The second is unmediated. Man turns to God without angels and mediators, with a feeling of unmediated conjunction, and God too bestows His bounty upon man in direct manner. This is an experience of revelation that lacks, as it were, all mediation.


            The Shem mi-Shemuel assigns the first state to the days of the week, and the second to Shabbat. The distinction between Shabbat and the weekdays contributes to our understanding of the two states. It is evident on various levels.


            During the week, we live in the material world and accept it as part of the system. We work, earn a living, travel, turn our eyes outward, toward society, our surroundings, and the entire world. On these days, our standing before God passes through our actions. These are days of action, and on these days our deeds stand at the center of our religious activity.


            On weekdays, the world in which we live also has a prominent position in our prayers. We stand in prayer before God, asking for a livelihood, for a cure to illness, for wisdom and understanding. The angels of song are embodied in the fixed text and repeated ritual of our prayers, the means through which we turn to God. It is also through these tools, those of the world of action, that the Divine bounty comes down to us. We know whether our prayers have been answered and we have merited His nearness by way of the world of action and the bounty that is given to us, or, God forbid, withheld.


            As Shabbat draws near, we are asked to let go of all that we had held fast to during the six days of the week. Our actions turn into prohibitions, and the instruments of our actions are forbidden as muktze. A person is asked to sever himself from the material world, the world of deeds, in favor of a world that is entirely spirit, where even the material elements are spiritual. On Shabbat we are asked to undergo the experience of turning inwards. It is precisely in our modern lives that this psychological state is sharpened. The technological means that have been developed in our time permit a person to go beyond his immediate surroundings. Modern modes of transportation can take a person far from his home. The telephone can connect him to distant places, and the internet can bring him to places that he will never see. The demand to refrain from all such activity on Shabbat turns us inwards, to our homes, our family, and our fundamental place: "Remain every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Shemot 16:29).


            This is the experience of "aloneness." In such a world we stand directly before the Creator of the universe. This is an experience of delight in the very presence of holiness. The detachment and seclusion of Shabbat sharpen this unmediated state and the communion with God that follows from it.


            The Divine bounty on this day also passes without any go-betweens. The extra soul implanted within us on Shabbat brings the attentive person to stand directly before his Creator and experience "Come, my friend, to meet the bride; let us welcome Shabbat."


            Shabbat is the absolute union of God and Israel, and in our day – as the Ari writes in his piyyut for the third Shabbat meal – hamelekh be-gilufin, the unclothed king.[4]




            The "aloneness" of the Shem mi-Shemuel means abandoning the world of action, the profane world, for a world that is entirely sanctified.


            The following passage suggests that there are those who maintain that the existential experience of "aloneness" does not demand of man that he cut himself off from the profane world. Some argue that with absolute dedication to the experience of "aloneness," the entire profane world can becomes harnessed to the experience of communion and nearness. R. Moshe Chayyim Efrayim of Sudylkow, the author of Degel Machane Efrayim, writes as follows:


This also alludes to what I have already said[5] regarding the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 77, 1) on the verse (Bereishit 32:25), "And Ya'akov remained alone": This is what is written (Yeshaya 2:11), "And the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day" (see there). This is puzzling. And I said about this, in my humble opinion, in accordance with the Gemara (Sanhedrim 37a): "Each and every person must say: The world was created for my sake." When we consider the words of the Gemara, [we realize] that they constitute profound advice regarding the service of the Creator, may He be blessed. That is, when a person thinks that the entire world was created for his sake, then he is the only person in the world, and the rest of the world is subordinate to him, and the entire foundation of the world depends upon him. If he improves his deeds, the world continues to exist, and if not, the opposite…. And certainly when God, may He be blessed, vindicates a person who has reached this level, then certainly all the kelipot fall from Him and become subject to holiness and the Shekhina, as it were. And His Divinity and unity are revealed, that He alone is, and there is none other but Him. This explains the allusion in the aforementioned midrash: "And Ya'akov remained alone," that is, when God helped him come to the level that he is alone in the world, as stated above, then he conjoins with God, one to one. "And the Lord alone shall be exalted," for all the kelipot fall away, and it becomes manifest and revealed that God alone is king over the entire world. This also explains the allusion here: "It is a people that shall dwell alone." That is, there will be a time that the people of Israel will come to the level of "alone," i.e., that they are alone in the world, and that the entire  world was created for them alone. And then, "And shall not be reckoned among the nations," i.e., as stated above, he will have not a single thought that keeps him from Divine service, and he can cleave to the Holy One, blessed be He, one to one. And then the Lord will be one and His name one. Amen. (Degel Machane Efrayim, Balak)


            The existential experience, which R. Efrayim of Sudylkow refers to, is the awareness that "the entire world was created for my sake."


            The Mishna in which this dictum is found notes the uniqueness of each and every individual:


And to tell the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for man mints many coins with a single mold, and they are all similar to one another. And the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped every man with the mold of the first man, and not one is similar to his fellow. Therefore, each and every person must say: The world was created for my sake" (Sanhedrin 4:5)


            The general context of this passage in the Mishna indicates that the Mishna wishes to emphasize the importance of each and every individual, and that his belonging to society and to a community does not diminish his value as an individual: "Therefore, man was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul in Israel, Scripture regards him as if he destroyed the entire world." But R. Efrayim of Sudylkow, focuses upon the individual's consciousness that the world was created for his sake, and that he was created alone.[6]


            R. Efrayim describes two cognitive ramifications of this psychological state:


            The first relates to responsibility. A person who lives with the awareness that he is the only person in God's world feels the full weight of the responsibility cast upon his shoulders. Through his deeds, he will maintain the world, or, God forbid, cause it to be destroyed.[7]


            Later in the passage, however, R. Efrayim describes a far more profound cognitive ramification, which at first glance is also much more dangerous. The idea that a person has that the entire world was created for his sake evokes the feeling that "the rest of the world is subordinate to him." We are dealing with what appears to be an egoistic consciousness, in which a person is in a psychological state in which he feels that he is the only person on stage, and that the rest of the world is merely scenery in relation to him.[8] R. Efrayim's novel insight is that that this singularity does not leave the individual in his personal framework bound by his own individuality. This awareness stands him up against God and God's perfect unity, in the sense of "Just as I am one, He is also one."[9]


How does an individualistic consciousness of this sort stand man up against God?


It seems that this can be understood based on a fundamental principle of R. Nachman of Breslov. This principle is based on the assumption that the entire universe is a dialogue between God and me, and everything that surrounds me are just pieces of the game.


When my children don't allow me to sleep, God is trying to tell me something. When the clerk behind the counter refuses my request with inexplicable stubbornness, I don't have to turn my attention to him. His conduct, his morals, his traits are his business, not mine. I have to view the entire situation as an invitation to listen to the word of God. From this perspective, that clerk is nothing but God's messenger. What is the situation telling me? What is my test? What is the repair? What am I being asked to do?


This conception is severe in its individualistic perspective, and as we have stated, it assumes for a short moment that there are but two beings in the world: God and me. All others are nothing but pawns in the framework of the dialogue between us.


When I behave in a certain way towards my wife, I am trying to say something to God, to listen to what He is demanding of me in the framework of my conduct towards her. Her conduct towards me should be viewed in similar fashion.


This approach and way of looking at the world have several far-reaching ramifications.


First, they remove the anger and rage that are liable to rise in one person towards another. "It is not you," he will tell the other person when he comes to apologize for some wrongdoing he had committed against him, "it is God trying to tell me something."


Second, it turns the entire world into a tool to be used for correction and progress. The more attentive we become, the more able will we be to elevate ourselves by way of everything happening around us.


Third, and here we come back to the words of R. Efrayim, they provide us with a new experience of the demand of "I set the Lord before me at all times." Recognizing that the entire world is part of God's word directed at me, and only at me, creates an amazing experience of cleaving to God, the world not distracting me for even a moment from Him. Just the opposite is true. The world constantly reminds me, in every event, even the most base and profane, that God is talking to me, as R. Efrayim writes: "He will have not a single thought that keeps him from Divine service, and he can cleave to the Holy One, blessed be."


Fourth, they sharpen and intensify the experience of recognizing the unity of the Creator. For the world is a world of plurality. We reflect upon the many, seemingly unconnected events occurring in the world - different people, different events, different times. This plurality constitutes a constant threat to Divine unity.


This awareness, which stands at the center of the R. Nachman's mode of worship, concentrates all these events, all these people, all of reality around one point. The entire world turns to me and constitutes the scenery around me. But a moment later this point is joined by the One and Only – God, for the entire world does not revolve me in and of itself, but as part of God's dialogue with and turning to me - I am one and He is one, and these two ones meet. Thus R. Efrayim concludes with the words: "And he can cleave to the Holy One, blessed be He, one to one. And then the Lord will be one and His name one. Amen."




[1] We shall not be dealing in this framework with the general import of this idea, for we wish to examine here only one of the many examples brought in the midrash. It should be noted, however, that this idea is rooted in the recognition that the righteous, through their deeds, prepare the way for Divine revelation.


[2] R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841) – disciple of the Choze and R. Menachem Mendel of Rymanow. The Choze revealed to him that he descends from the tribe of Yissachar, and so he named his book Benei Yissachar. The Chassidut of Munkacs traces to him. His books include: Benei Yissachar, Igra de-Kala, Derekh Pikudekha.


[3] R. Shemuel of Sochaczew (1856-1926), son of R. Avraham of Sochaczew, author of Avnei Nezer and Iglei Tal, who was the son-in-law and disciple of the Kotzker Rebbe. R. Shemuel helped his father in the editing of his books, adding his own comments to them.


[4] Gilufin is the Aramaic term for "unclothed. It is used here in the sense of removal of barriers.


[5] The Degel Machane Efrayim brings this idea in his comments to our parasha, but expands upon it when he repeats the idea in Parashat Balak. Thus, we cite the passage from Balak.


[6] This approach presents a polar ideal. We wish to note that R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who was greatly troubled by this issue and often related to it in his writings, cites the idea that a person must go about with two notes in his pocket, the one reading, "For my sake, the world was created," and the other reading, "I am but dust and ashes." R. Soloveitchik, in contrast to R. Efrayim, wishes to maintain the delicate balance between the consciousness that man stands at the center of existence, and the consciousness according to which he is pushed to the side of social existence. He writes as follows: "[Judaism] sees him [man] in his individuality and as part of a community, a limb in the body of Kenesset Israel. Regarding this issue there exists a continuous dialectic in Jewish thought across the generations. The question of questions is: Does the individual stand above the community and it falls upon the community to serve the individual, or is the individual subordinate to the community… The individual and the community, as it were, are set upon the two pans of a scale and are dependent upon each other. We sometimes find that the community must sacrifice itself for the sake of an individual, for example, in the case where non-Jews lay siege on a city and demand that one person be handed over to them – in such a case they must all die, rather than hand over to them a single soul of Israel. And sometimes the individual is obligated to sacrifice itself for the sake of the community. Never is an individual nullified by the community, and never is the community lost because of an individual or individuals. Each has a place of its own" (Al ha-Teshuva, pp. 86-87). Similar ideas may be found at the beginning of "The Lonely Man of Faith," and in R. Solovetchik's article, "Ha-Rav she-Chotamo Kedusha ve-Ahava" (in Divrei Hagut ve-Ha'arakha, p. 207).


[7] This is reminiscent of the Gemara in Kiddushin (40b): "R. Elazar ben R. Shimon says: Since the world is judged after its majority, and the individual is judged after his majority, if a person performed a single mitzva, he is fortunate, for he has decided his fate and that of the world in favor of vindication. If he committed a single transgression, woe to him, for he has decided his fate and that of the world in favor of culpability."

This statement, like the introductory words of R. Efrayim, are meant to prevent a person from releasing himself from the great responsibility cast upon him not only in relation to himself, but also in relation to the entire world. Sometimes a person allows himself to be swallowed up by the masses and thus become released from the responsibility for the community. These words are directed against such an inclination.


[8] Let us note that this psychological state constitutes one of the foundations of the modern school of thought called ”existentialism," which seeks to sharpen personal experience, and almost entirely abolish the value of objective reality. What exists is what I see; everything else, if it exists, is irrelevant to me. The early advocates of this position faced the question that follows from it regarding the very existence of a real world, for in the absence of eyes that see it, according to this view, it should cease to exist. Some have resolved this issue of the continuity of existence by way of the eyes of God by power of which the world maintains its consecutive existence (Berkeley). Others have reached the far-reaching conclusion that the material world does not exist at all (Hume).

This approach has many ramifications for Jewish thought; it has effected a number of modern thinkers who have dealt with this issue, including R. Nachman of Breslov, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and others.


[9] It is brought in the name of R. Bunim of Przysucha: "I sometimes think that every individual is a solitary tree, a juniper in the wilderness, a single child of the Creator of the universe, and that the Holy One, blessed be He, has in His world but one person, just as He is One."


(Translated by David Strauss)