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Why ask for the angel’s name (and the generation gap)

Written by daniel fine

Our sedra is quite action-packed as sedras come. Yaakov meets up with Eisav after years of separation, and before doing so he prepares for the eventuality of war. As it happens, Eisav behaves peacefully to Yaakov, and the family are introduced to their uncle Eisav. We then move on to the episode with Dinah and Shechem, and Shimon and Levi’s killing of the entire city. Next up is HaShem formally changing Yaakov’s name to Yisrael, and His promise of many descendants and the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael to Yaakov. On the way to Efrat, Rachel dies giving birth to Binyamin and she is buried in Beis Lechem. Finally, there is an account of the families of Yaakov and Eisav, and then an accounting of the kings of Eretz Edom (a portion which the Ramchal said concealed hidden treasures and references to the Moshiach). The night before Yaakov meets Eisav, he comes across the angel of Eisav whilst retrieving some pots from across the river.After fighting for several hours (during which the angel’s injuring Yaakov’s thigh meant that we are forbidden to eat the gid hanasheh forever), the angel asks Yaakov for his name, and informs Yaakov that his name will be changed to Yisrael. Just before parting, Yaakov has one request of the angel ‘tell me your name now’ (32:30), to which the angel responds ‘why do you ask my name?’ (32:30) and blesses Yaakov, then absconds. This episode needs much explanation and elaboration; why did Yaakov want to know the angel’s name? And if the angel did not want to reveal his name (for some reason, which we need to understand) then why did he not say ‘I’m not telling you;’ why reply with a question of ‘why do you ask my name’ as if Yaakov’s request was a foolish one? The Midrash[1] shines some light on this incident. Rav Yossi there cites a contradiction; in Tehillim[2] it says that each angel has many names, whilst in Yeshaya[3] it says that each angel has only one name. Thus, it must be, continues the Midrash, that each angel is given a different name according to his mission and time in which he is sent. Currently each angel has only one name, but each angel will have many names; a different one for each mission he is given and each generation in which he appears. This certainly resolves part of the issue; the angel’s response to Yaakov was in question form (‘why do you ask my name’) for he was telling Yaakov that it is pointless to know my name, for my name will not be the same for all time. We still do not know why Yaakov wanted to know the angel’s name, however. Indeed, there is another similar episode in Tanach where an angel refused to reveal his name; this episode is actually also quoted in the above Midrash. In sefer Shoftim, we are told that Man’oach and his wife had not had children for many years, when an angel appears to his wife telling her that she will give birth to a son – but she is to make him a nazir (no wine, no haircuts, no spiritual impurity). Mano’ach then asks for the angel to appear again so he can see the angel, whereupon the angel repeats his message to Mano’ach (though Man’oach did not know at that point that it was an angel talking to him). Mano’ach proceeds to ask this angel what his name is, and the angel repeats the exact wording of the angel which responded to Yaakov; ‘why do you ask my name,’ (Shoftim 13:18) but then adds ‘and it is Peli’ (‘don’t tell them your name, Pike’). What happened here; the angel seems to rebut Mano’ach’s request for his name, and then reveals his name? As Rashi says there, ‘Peli’ was not the angel’s name, but rather is a word which means ‘hidden.’ The angel was telling Man’oach that his name is hidden, for ‘it constantly changes,’ as Rashi and our Midrash both comment. [And Mano’ach’s son was the famous Shimshon by the way]. The only piece of the puzzle left is why did Yaakov beg to know the angel’s name. And as we shall see, it is really the centrepiece of the entire episode. A name in Hebrew conveys the essence of the object. It is not merely a convention to be able to form a common language and communicate (as other languages are), but the word itself means the thing. Thus, the word for ‘name’ (shem) has the same letters as the word ‘there’ (sham), for the name places the object in defining what its essence is. Therefore, when Yaakov was asking the angel for his name, he was asking the angel of Eisav – the angel who acts as the chief conspirator against the Jewish People across generations – what his essence is. Yaakov wanted to know what the main weapon this angel was going to use against the Jewish people throughout the generations is, so Yaakov could prepare his descendants to face such a weapon. But the angel replied that he cannot reveal his name, for ‘my name constantly changes.’ The angel was informing Yaakov that there is no single weapon that he will use for several generation; each generation has a different weapon to face and a different challenge – as represented by the angel’s change of names.[4] The Chazon Ish used to put across this message; that each generation has its own challenges, and so it cannot necessarily rely solely on learning things from the previous generation(s), for the previous generation did not face the challenges of today’s generation. Indeed, this is why the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva zt’l would comment that when one gets to Heaven, the leading sage of this generation is summoned to speak at your court case. Why the sage of your generation as opposed to any other generation? For the sages of previous generations did not go through the same challenges as those faced by your generation, and so cannot speak for you. This message of different challenges being faced by different generations is rather poignant; this is often the reason for breakdown in relations between parents and children – for there is a gap in communication and understanding. Since the parents grew up in a generation which experienced different challenges to that of their children, the parents do not understand the children, and the children do not understand where the parents are coming from either. Indeed, this theme can be witnessed via a mere cursory look at modern history. The challenge of one generation was Communism; a movement which swept away many yeshiva boys in its fervour, to the extent that some bright prospects had to be paid by their yeshivas to keep away from the Communist meetings – such was the temptation and pull to join this secular, anti-religious movement. Another generation had the challenges of coping with the haskala (‘enlightenment), which, again, swept away many yeshiva boys and other faithful Jews in the wave of becoming more ‘educated’ and less Jewish.

So what is the challenge of our generation? Some say[5] that it is the blurring of differences between Jew and non-Jew; schools seem unwilling to recognise a difference, and the generation has seemingly become polarised between those who become ‘extremely Jewish’ in being ‘enclosed’ and keeping apart from the non-Jewish world, and those who, on the other hand, have mixed in to the non-Jewish world to such an extent that they have intermarried. Others[6] suggest that the major challenge of our generation is that we do not think clearly. As social psychology suggests, we have insufficient time to think clearly; our decisions are rushed and are not thought out properly. The Washington Post placed Joshua Bell, the world famous violinist, in the Metro station subway in New York, and got him to play the same world famous classical pieces which he had played when he filled Boston’s Symphony Hall (for at least $100 a seat) three days earlier; this time donned with jeans and T-shirt and a hat in front of him for donations. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run – for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. And there was never a crowd, not even for a second. This proves the inability for people to stop for a second to appreciate things. This is only about quantity of thought. We do not fare much better when it comes to quality of thought. As Rav Yisrael Salanter pointed out already then, the generation is one of tardema (deep sleep), whereby there is no connection between what we think and what we feel inside. Either way, the main idea here is that we should realise that as the generations change, so too do the challenges faced by each generation – and this should necessitate new tactics being used to fight off these new challenges. Have a great Shabbos! [1] Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 78:4. The highlights are quoted by Rashi 32:30 [2] Tehillim 147:4 – ‘le’chulam shemos yikra’ (‘each will be called with names’) [3] Yeshaya 40:26 – ‘le’chulam be’shem yikra’ (‘each will be called by their [one] name’) [4] I heard the crux of this explanation on a Rabbi Frand tape [5] Rav Moshe Shapira, apparently [6] I heard something along these lines from Rav Moskowitz

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