We read in Parashat Vayishlach of the mysterious man who attacked Yaakov and began wrestling with him as he made his way back to Canaan after spending twenty years with Lavan. The Midrash (cited by Rashi to 32:25) identifies the assailant as saro shel Eisav – the heavenly angel which “represented” Esav in the heavens.
The Torah describes Yaakov’s wrestle with the term “va-yei’aveik” (“struggled,” or “wrestled”), which the Gemara (Chulin 91a), intriguingly, associates with the word “avak” – “dust.” As Rashi explains, people who wrestle tend to kick dust into the air over the course of their fight. But the Gemara adds that this dust was special, in that “it reached the Heavenly Throne.” The dust sent into the air through Yaakov and the angel’s wrestle did not just fall back down to the ground, but rather soared to the highest place in the heavens, reaching the Almighty’s throne.
This image, of dust rising from the earth and extending to the heavens, brings to mind another seminal moment in Yaakov’s life, namely, the famous dream he beheld as he slept along his journey from Canaan to Charan. Yaakov dreamt of a ladder that is described as being firmly planted in the ground (“mutzav artza”) and extending all the way to the heavens (28:12). Interestingly, both Yaakov’s vision of angels as he left his homeland, and his encounter with an angel as he returned to his homeland twenty years later, involved the bridging of the gap separating heaven from earth. On both occasions, he was shown that heaven and earth can be joined together; that the process of implanting ourselves in the ground, engaging in ordinary, mundane pursuits, does not require severing ourselves from the heavens, and that even when we find ourselves in the “dust,” involved in the less pleasant and less seemly aspects of life, we can still soar heavenward, all the way to the Divine Throne.
Appropriately, this notion of merging heaven and earth appears as “brackets” around Yaakov’s difficult but significant sojourn in Aram. Throughout this period, Yaakov was involved in the “earth,” in material pursuits. He spent these years earning his keep shepherding Lavan’s flocks, and then earning his own fortune by outmaneuvering Lavan. As Yaakov himself testified (31:40), he loyally tended to Lavan’s sheep day and night, hardly sleeping. During these years, Yaakov struggled with Lavan in the “dust,” confronting the filth of his uncle’s unbridled greed and shameless duplicity. At the beginning and at the end of this twenty-year period, Yaakov was shown that even his worldly engagements can reach the heavens. Spiritual achievement does not require detachment from mundane life, but to the contrary, necessitates firmly implanting ourselves in the “ground,” in the practicalities of life, as we work to ascend to the heavens. It is specifically by struggling “in the dirt,” confronting the less serene aspects of human life, that we are capable of rising to spiritual heights and earning a place near the Heavenly Throne.