In this week's parsha, Parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov encounters a mysterious man who will forever change the Patriarch – physically, spiritually and emotionally. While many Torah commentators have sought to understand the identity of the mysterious stranger Yaakov wrestled with, I think the bigger question is why did this encounter happen at all? Our parsha teaches us that the night before Yaakov was set to meet his brother Esav, in what he feared would be a violent, merciless clash, "he arose that same night, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Yabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw the he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov's hip at it socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him" (Bereshit 32:23-9).
The fact that Yaakov returned to the other side of the Yabbok after he had moved his family set the scene for this mysterious encounter. Yet, why did Yaakov go back? Why did Yaakov want to be alone, instead of with his family at this most uncertain time? According to the Rashbam, Yaakov retreated to the other bank because, "He wanted to cross over after them, intending to flee in another direction, so as not to meet up with Esav." In other words, Yaakov was planning on doing what Yaakov did best: Run away when things got too difficult. However, it is at this point that Yaakov meets the enigmatic man, who wrestles with him. Based on the understanding of the Rashbam, this wrestling match served to teach Yaakov an eye-opening lesson about the purpose of his journey. In the words of the Rashbam, the man wrestled with Yaakov "so as not to allow him to flee...[Thus] the reason that Yaakov was lamed was that, despite God's promise, he attempted to flee. Similarly, one finds that whenever someone attempts a journey or refuses a journey against God's Will, he or she is punished." In other words, regardless of who the shadowy figure Yaakov strove with was – a shepherd, a bandit, an angel, or Yaakov's own inner-self, the point of the encounter was to teach Yaakov that there are some things in life you cannot run away from. The man in this story stopped Yaakov from doing what he was most comfortable with – fleeing, and forced him to stay and stand his ground. Even though God had promised Yaakov that no harm would come to him, as it says, "Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Bereshit 28:15), Yaakov still lacked the courage to believe that he could face an angry Esav and still survive, despite God's promise of protection. Thus, the mysterious man was not hindering Yaakov's journey, he was actually propelling Yaakov forward on the journey he was supposed to be on. Because Yaakov relied on his physical swiftness to get himself out of tricky situations, the man injured him, so as to teach him that outrunning his problems is not the answer, but rather, having faith, accepting responsibility, taking ownership and finding courage is the truest path towards fulfillment.
There are times when running away from our fears, our problems and uncomfortable encounters seems like the easier option. However, when we seek to "go our own way," when we seek to flee, to forget it all and "do our own thing," we sometimes encounter obstacles which we might think are holding us up, testing us, entangling us, but those obstacles, those tests, those entanglements, might actually be wake-up calls for us to realize that sometimes what is easier is not what is right, what is comfortable is not necessarily good for us, and grappling with what is difficult might just be the best journey for us to go on in order to grow and actualize our destinies.
This Shabbat, let us consider the journeys we know we need to be on. Let us consider the difficulties those journeys entail, the fears they fill us with, and the sacrifices they will require. However, as we reflect on those factors, let us also reflect on the idea that sometimes, grappling with those fears, standing our ground instead of running away, is the surest way to help us continue on the journeys God has chosen for us, so that in the end, we can look back on the pathways of our lives and recognize that indeed, we have striven with forces both divine and human, and have prevailed!