Parashat Vayishlach tells the famous story of the mysterious assailant who attacked Yaakov during the night as he returned from Charan and prepared for his feared reunion with his brother, Esav. Chazal identify this attacker as an angel, which is indeed implied by the fact that Yaakov, after subduing his assailant, asked for a blessing, and the assailant replied by giving Yaakov the name “Yisrael” (32:29) – a name later confirmed by God Himself (35:10).
The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (91b) discusses several different aspects of this story, including the angel’s request to Yaakov after wrestling with him through the night, “Let me go, because morning has risen” (32:27). The explanation of this request, the Gemara comments, is that the angel needed to return to the heavens to sing praise to God. The angel said to Yaakov, in the Gemara’s words, “I am an angel, and since the day I was created, it was never my time to sing song [of praise to God] until today.”
Why was it only now that the angel needed to sing praise? Was it merely coincidental that its time to sing happened to come at that moment, when it was subdued by Yaakov?
The Maggid of Kozhnitz (Avodat Yisrael) explains that every angel is assigned a mission to fulfill, and upon completing its mission, it returns to the heavens and gives praise to God. The angel that attacked Yaakov represents the various forms of challenges that we confront and struggle to overcome. We all, like Yaakov that night, find ourselves “attacked” by adversity and struggles at different times and in different forms. This angel’s mission is completed, the Maggid explains, when it is defeated. Its purpose is not to succeed, but to fail. The reason why God sends us tests and challenges is for us to overcome them and grow from them. And thus it was specifically then, when Yaakov triumphed over the angel, that its mission was satisfactorily completed, and it needed to return to the heavens and sing to the Almighty.
The message conveyed by this insight of the Maggid of Kozhnitz, of course, is that challenges are meant to be overcome, that we are capable and expected to triumph over life’s tests, and not be defeated by them. Additionally, however, there may also be another lesson that incidentally emerges from this insight. Namely, sometimes our “mission” is specifically not to succeed. Just as the angel was sent to lose his wrestle with Yaakov, similarly, we are not necessarily expected to succeed in every mission we undertake. Our natural instinct when we try something that does not succeed is to feel disappointed and despondent, and to grieve over the wasted time and effort invested in the failed undertaking. The story of the angel, as understood by the Maggid of Kozhnitz, perhaps teaches us that we can – and should try to – “sing” in joy even when we do not succeed. Very often, the effort itself is immensely valuable and rewarding, even if it did not produce the desired result. In situations of unsuccessful efforts, we need to consider the possibility that our “mission,” like the angel’s, was specifically not to succeed, to experience the struggle and not see the results we had hoped for. This experience may itself ultimately prove beneficial, and thus even unsuccessful efforts are, very often, valuable, and reasons to joyfully “sing,” rather than wallow in frustration.