The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells the famous story of Yaakov’s confrontation with a mysterious assailant who attacked him one night as he made his way back to Canaan in preparation for his feared reunion with Esav. Seeing that he could not defeat Yaakov, the man asked Yaakov to release him, and Yaakov agreed only after the man blessed him, giving him the name “Yisrael.” It is generally understood that the assailant was an angel sent by God to sabotage Yaakov’s return to Canaan, and who symbolizes the conflicts and struggles that Yaakov’s descendants would have to endure over the course of their history.
The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (91a) cites two views regarding the appearance of this angel: one opinion is that the angel appeared to Yaakov as an idolater, whereas the other claims that the angel disguised as a pious scholar.
How might we understand these two possibilities? Why did Chazal suggest specifically these two disguises as the possible appearances of the assailant that symbolizes Am Yisrael’s struggles and confrontations?
The likely explanation is that Chazal here alert us to the fact that spiritual adversaries come in different forms, and can sometimes appear as our ally. While our foe is often unmistakably an “idolater,” a temptation or ideology that is clearly at odds with our belief system, such that the need to oppose it is obvious, other “assailants” assume the appearance of a “scholar,” of wisdom and piety. Sometimes we need to oppose and struggle against a belief, outlook or approach that outwardly seems noble and virtuous, but is, in truth, foreign and hostile. When we confront an “assailant” of this kind, we might be misled by its noble appearance to yield and surrender. The Gemara teaches us that the strength, persistence and determination with which Yaakov defeated his assailant is necessary even if when we come upon an adversary which appears as a “scholar,” when we are threatened by foreign values and ideals that initially strike us as noble and spiritual.