The Yabok Crossing

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In loving memory of my parents: Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel)
and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z”l
In memory of Rav Michael (Mike) Bloom z”l, son of Albert and Evelyn Bloom,
a "Renaissance man" who cared about people and taught many the ways of Hashem.
His siblings, Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom
Where does the parasha really begin? At the beginning of the non-Jewish chapter (Bereishit 32:1), or at the beginning of the Masoretic seder (Bereishit 32:4)? From the appearance of the "the angels [malakhei] of God," or from Yaakov's sending of messengers [malakhim] to Esav?  
Other questions regarding our parasha present themselves as well: Did Yaakov divide all that he had into "two camps" once or twice (Bereishit 32:8; and again 33:1)? Where precisely is the "Yabok crossing"? Did Yaakov prepare to flee at the last minute, or to fight if he was left with no other choice?
Both Chazal and our great commentators were deeply divided on these issues.
As we are accustomed to read from the Torah, the Masoretic seder opens the account of the meeting between Yaakov and Esav with: "And Yaakov sent messengers" (Bereishit 32:4), while Yaakov's encounter with "the angels of God" in Machanayim is the end of the story of Yaakov and Lavan – when Lavan ceded his hold on Yaakov and his family, and Yaakov alone, on his independent path back to the land of his forefathers, merited a revelation already in Machanayim, in the northern part of Gil'ad.
The non-Jewish division of the Torah into chapters pushes back the beginning of chapter 32 to Lavan's rising early in the morning, connecting Yaakov's parting from Lavan with "the angels of God" who were revealed to him, they being the "messengers" that Yaakov sent to his brother Esav. Thus, the two stories are intimately connected – the parting from Lavan (Bereishit 32:1) and immediately afterwards (Bereishit 32:2-3>4) the revelation of "the angels" that would lead to the charged encounter between Yaakov and Esav, which will also end with kisses (Bereishit 32:1; 33:4).
We find that the midrashim in Bereishit Rabba (74:15; 75:3, 10) are in fact divided on this very question: 
Malakhim – These are messengers of flesh and blood. The Rabbis say: Actual angels… Come and see what is written beforehand: “And Yaakov said when he saw them: This is God's camp…”… How the angels danced before Yaakov our father when he entered the land… R. Yuden said: He took from these and from those and sent… before him. This is what is stated: “And Yaakov sent messengers before him."
The first opinion cited in the midrash, however, continues to call the malakhim "messengers." Similarly, Onkelos renders the malakhim sent by Yaakov as azgadin, "messengers," as opposed to the "malakhiya of God" in Machanayim (at the end of the previous parasha).
There is no escaping the conclusion that the non-Jewish division of the chapters drew on an ancient Jewish tradition, which connected the malakhim sent by Yaakov to the previous revelation, such that "And Yaakov sent…" is nothing but a detailing and a continuation of the vision in Machanayim.
Accordingly, we can also view the two camps into which Yaakov divided his people (Bereishit 32:8-9) as a continuation and a reflection of the camps of  "angels," who instructed Yaakov about how to deal with his camp in anticipation of his encounter with Esav and his four hundred men, so that it might be saved.
We find that our great commentators disagreed on this point.
Rashi (Bereishit 32:2) writes: "The angels of Eretz Yisrael came to greet him and to accompany him into the land," and in the continuation (Bereishit 32:4) he writes: "'And Yaakov sent malakhim before him' – actual malakhim [= angels]."
On the other hand, R. Saadya Gaon, Rashbam, Radak, and the Ramban take care to write: "'And Yaakov sent malakhim' – messengers," and the Ibn Ezra adds: "from among his servants." In this way, they distinguished between "the angels of God" and the "messengers" sent by Yaakov, as we find in the tradition for Torah reading, which follows the Masoretic determination concerning the division of the sedarim.
The Rambam goes even further, arguing that the entire story is a revelation in a "prophetic vision" (even if the messengers are Yaakov's messengers), and especially the night-time struggle between Yaakov and the mystery "man" at the Yabok crossing and Yaakov's being given the name "Yisrael." This is because, according to the Rambam, there can be no physical encounter between a man of flesh and blood and a heavenly angel. Thus, he writes in his Guide for the Perplexed (II:42):
We have explained that wherever it is mentioned that an angel was seen or had spoken, that has happened only in a vision of prophecy or in a dream, whether this is explicitly stated or not… Know this and understand it thoroughly. And there is no difference between a statement in which the prophet literally affirms from the first that he saw an angel and a statement according to whose external sense the prophet at first thought that a human individual had appeared to him, whereas at the end it became clear to him that it was an angel… You ought to know and to establish as true that the event was from the first a vision of prophecy or a dream of prophecy…
It is similar with regard to Yaakov. At first is says: "And the angels of God met him" (Bereishit 32:2). Then it begins to explain what happened before they met him, and says that he sent messengers and acted and did this and that. Then, "Yaakov was left alone, and so on" (Bereishit 32:25). And these are the angels of God of whom it has been said at first: "And the angels of God met him." All the wrestling and the conversation in question happened in a vision of prophecy.
The Rambam writes similarly about God's revelation to Avraham "at the door of the tent," and he explains at length that all of Avraham's well-known hospitality and all that was said there are only a spelling out of the revelatory vision that began with: "And the Lord appeared to him" (Bereishit 18:1).
This position brought out the wrath of the Ramban, who writes in his commentary to the beginning of Parashat Vayera:
Now, according to him [the Rambam], Sara did not knead cakes, nor did Avraham prepare a calf, nor did Sara laugh, for everything was a vision. If so this dream was in most of its matters like a false dream!
And similarly, he said regarding: "And a man wrestled with him" (Bereishit 32:25) that this was all in a prophetic vision. I do not understand then why Yaakov limped upon his thigh when he awoke, or why he said: "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Bereishit 32:31), for the prophets were not afraid that they would die because of their prophetic visions….
When I was younger, I did not understand the Rambam's position; indeed, the words of the Ramban seemed to come out of my mouth as well. But as I delved more deeply into the text, I saw that the Rambam's words fit in simply and smoothly with the Torah's wording. The verse discussing Avraham states: "And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and he saw, and he ran to meet them from the door of the tent" (Bereishit 18:2). Rashi already asks: "What does the repetition of the words, 'and he saw,' imply?" According to the Rambam, it is clear that Avraham saw himself running in a "prophetic vision." Moreover, if God showed Avraham how he entertained guests in an exemplary fashion and how he prayed and argued with God about the fate of Sodom, this means that this is the way Avraham would conduct himself at all times, even with guests who bow down to the dust on their feet, and this is the way that he would pray, even on behalf of those who caused him harm. That is, in fact, exactly what God says to Avimelekh in his dream of the night: "Now therefore restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live; and if you restore her not, know you that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours" (Bereishit 20:7). Why does it bother the Ramban that God reveals Avraham's greatness to us by way of a "prophetic vision"?
Earlier, at the end of the story of the destruction of Sodom, we find an account of Avraham's rising early "to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked out toward Sodom and Amora, and toward all the land of the Plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the land went up as the smoke of a furnace" (Bereishit 19:27-28). This is followed by a verse that summarizes all that happened to Sodom, using the name Elokim. It is clear (according to the Rambam) that the Torah means to say that whatever God showed Avraham in a prophetic vision actually happened in reality.[1]
The Torah's intention is even clearer in the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, for after all the malakhim and after the mysterious night-time struggle at the Yabok crossing and the prohibition of gid ha-nasheh for all future generations, the story begins again as the story of the encounter: "And Yaakov lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esav came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two handmaids…" (Bereishit 33:1-2). What most readers ordinarily understand as two stages in the story (before the Yabok crossing and after it), can easily be explained in accordance with the Rambam’s view as a prophetic vision followed by an account of the reality. It is easy to understand that Yaakov really sent messengers with flocks as presents for Esav – as Esav states: "What do you mean by all this camp which I met?" (Bereishit 33:8) – even if Scripture describes this by way of a prophetic vision.
Our conclusion: The Rambam's reading is certainly possible, and it fits in with clear emphases in the wording of the Torah. Perhaps, then, Yaakov divided the camp into two only once, as he had been taught to do in the vision. And furthermore, even if the wrestling with the mystery man at the Yabok crossing was a prophetic vision, it is not difficult to understand that Yaakov, who saw the vision, was so frightened by the prophetic struggle that was directed against him (as in the dream of the ladder) that he limped on his thigh even after he woke up!
Returning to the position of almost all of the commentators, however, we must ask why indeed Yaakov divided his camp twice. 
The only reasonable explanation involves the Yabok crossing and Yaakov's solo night-time struggle with the mystery man. The two camps that crossed the Yabok must have become intermingled and formed a single camp, so that it once again became urgently necessary to divide the camp into two when Yaakov saw his brother Esav approaching with his four hundred men.
This explanation raises another question about Yaakov's plan: Why did he send over "all that he had"? Where was he planning to go? Was he surprised by Esav's speedy arrival?
According to most of the commentators, Yaakov intended simply to flee. This is the way they explained the midrash that Yaakov prepared himself in three ways: praying, giving a gift, and preparing for war: "For rescue by way of war – to run away and be saved" (Ramban, beginning of the parasha). The Rashbam (Bereishit 32:23-29) writes about the night at the Yabok crossing: "He intended to escape by way of a different route, and therefore he passed over the stream at night, as we find with David when he ran away from Avshalom by way of these routes of the Jordan and Machanayim… Because he meant to run away by way of a different route so that he not encounter Esav." The Rashbam even explains Yaakov's limp as a punishment for his attempt to run away. According to this, the mystery man was sent to delay Yaakov, so that his attempted escape would fail. Indeed, Yaakov was surprised and afraid in the morning when he saw Esav approaching with his men, and he understood that he had failed to evade him and run away.
Now we come to the geographical perspective: The historic "King's Highway" on the east bank of the Jordan, from north to south, descends and ascends very steeply at the Yabok stream[2] (in Arabic, the Zarka stream, i.e., the blue stream), which crosses through the Gil'ad (Devarim 3:12-17), and at the Arnon stream[3] (in Arabic, wadi al-Mojib), which crosses through the Moav plateau. For comparative purposes, when the highway passes through the Yarmouk bed[4] (same name in Arabic), it is not steep, because it passes through it far to the east of the steep canyon. It is not by chance that exceedingly important events took place at the Yabok and Arnon crossings, while the Yarmouk is not mentioned at all in Scripture.
Anyone who wishes to turn west at the Yabok stream and reach the Jordan (as did Yaakov later on) must cross the steep crossing, because the road west makes its way on the southern bank of the Yabok stream, and it would appear that this was also the case in the historical past.
Rashi (on verse 9), in contrast to the other commentators, interprets the midrash in the opposite direction: "'Then the remaining camp may escape' – in spite of him, for I will fight him." According to Rashi, the mystery man was sent not to delay Yaakov, but to test him: Will he really fight when left with no other choice? The nighttime struggle exposed Yaakov's fighting ability for the first and only time in his life, and then he truly earned the name Yisrael, "for you have striven [sarita] with God and with men and have prevailed" (Bereishit 32:29).
Only then did Yaakov rightly merit the blessings he received from his father Yitzchak in a fraudulent manner. Yitzchak blessed someone who did not exist, one whose voice was the voice of Yaakov but whose hands were the hands of Esav (Bereishit 27:22). Only after Yaakov acquired the hands of Esav – after twenty years during which he lived in the field with "the skins of the kids of the goats" (Bereishit 27:16) in which his mother had dressed him – stood up for himself, and wrestled alone at the Yabok crossing, was "Yisrael" born from Yaakov, and he was truly worthy to receive the blessing.
This is precisely the meaning of the verses according to Rashi (on Bereishit 32:27-29):
"And he [the man] said: Let me go, for the day breaks. And he [Yaakov] said: I will not let you go, except you bless me" – Admit my right to the blessings which my father gave me and to which Esav lays claim… "And he said: Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael" – it shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through supplanting [okva] and deception, but through noble conduct [serara] and in an open manner.
In our time, we have merited the historic Yabok crossing, when, out of "Yaakov," father of the exiles of the Jews, emerged the people of "Yisrael" as a fighting nation that knows how to fight for its survival and for its land when there is no other alternative. Even if he occasionally limps on his thigh because of the many wars, he strives to preserve "the voice of Yaakov," to avoid being drawn after "Shimon and Levi" and to observe the moral code of war precisely as a victorious nation.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] This is the way that the Ramban understood the Rambam, but he immediately rejects this view in a most forceful manner.
[2] At the Yabok crossing, on the southern bank of the stream, stands Tel-a-Dehav, which has been identified with the city of Penuel, mentioned also in the story of Gid'on's pursuit of the Midyanites (Shofetim 8:8-9:17). At the site of the Yabok crossing, the Jordanians built a dam, creating a long and narrow lake, Lake Talal.
[3] The canyon of the Arnon is much deeper and wider than that of the Yabok, and the Arnon crossings are in a wide valley, but the slopes are very steep. There too the Jordanians built the al-Mojib dam, creating a very large lake.
[4] Near the city of Dar'a, which is identified with the biblical Edrei (Devarim 1:4, 3:1), the city of Og, king of the Bashan, and today, the Syrian-Jordanian border.