Y2K / Jabbok River Experience
Yisroel [Isreal] was born "Ya'akov," [Jacob] and Ya'akov later became "Yisroel" at the age of ninety-seven, on his way to Eretz Yisroel [land of Israel] in the year 2205/1556 BCE.
The truth is, as the Talmud points out, Ya'akov never really became only "Yisroel" (Brochos 13a), and we see that the Torah uses the name interchangeably. It seems that Ya'akov's name change represents a potential, a spiritual potential, that was achieved that fateful night.
What fateful night? The night that, according to the Torah, Ya'akov fought with a "stranger" (Bereishis 32:25), and according to the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:2), with an angel. And not just any angel, but the protecting angel of Edom, the future nation of his brother, Eisav [Esau].
This episode was towards the end of Ya'akov's long journey home. After cunningly taking Eisav's blessings from their father Yitzchak [Isaac], Ya'akov was forced to flee a furious, vengeful murderous brother, Eisav. After fourteen years of Torah learning in the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver, Ya'akov headed off to Padan Aram (Mesopotamia), and his uncle Lavan's house.
Twenty years, two wives, and eleven children later, Ya'akov sensed it was time to leave his deceitful father-in-law, and return to the land of his fathers, Eretz Yisroel. He did exactly that, knowing full well that he would once again have to cross paths with his dangerous brother, Eisav. It was a high price to pay, but a necessary one, if Ya'akov was ever going to return home to Eretz Yisroel.
Or was it? The Midrash seems to paint a different picture of Ya'akov's so-called fateful confrontation:
Rav Huna began, "Like one who grasps a passing dog by the ears, so is one who becomes impassioned over discord that is not his own." (Mishlei 26:17). Shmuel bar Nachman said, it can be compared to leader of thieves who was sleeping by the crossroads, of whom a person passed and aroused saying, "Get up! It is dangerous here!" He asked him, "Are you the bad person? Why did you wake me up? (Matanos Kehuna) You awoke the bad person and endangered your own life!" So said The Holy One, Blessed is He, to Ya'akov, "He [Eisav] was going his own way (i.e., his anger had subsided; Matanos Kehuna), and you sent to him [messengers] and said to him, 'So says your servant Ya'akov ...' ." (Bereishis Rabbah 75:3)
According to the Midrash, Ya'akov antagonized Eisav, and picked a fight that could have been avoided. Why would Ya'akov do a thing like that? Why would the gentle-natured Ya'akov actually go looking for a fight? Yet, on the other hand, it was a move that eventually led to Ya'akov's struggle with the angel, that led to his crucial name change:
"Your name shall no longer be called Ya'akov, but Yisroel, for you have struggled with a heavenly being and with man, and have prevailed." (Bereishis 32:29)
-a very positive sign.
Perhaps we can understand Ya'akov's intention and success by recalling an earlier dialogue that also involved Ya'akov, and his new, unintended wife, Leah. Rachel had warned Ya'akov that Lavan would try to make the switch, and Ya'akov had been prepared. However, after the marriage took place, Ya'akov found out that, in spite of his best efforts to counter Lavan, he ended up being married to Leah instead of Rachel.
Ya'akov would have to deal with Lavan later. In the meantime, Leah, too, had been party to the ruse, and she had to answer for herself:
"How could you pretend to be Rachel, and answer me when I called you her name?" an angry Ya'akov demanded. "I am your student! Didn't you come to your father, dressed as Eisav, and when your father called you "Eisav," you responded? I only imitated you!" Leah defended. (Aitz Yosef)
In other words, Leah was pointing out the irony of the situation. "You disguised yourself as Eisav, and deceived your father to accomplish what you thought was best," Leah countered, "and I have done the same to you!"
However, was Leah correct and justified? Not only do two wrongs not make a right, but perhaps Ya'akov could have proven that his had be a "right," while Leah's was clearly an act of deceit. For, Ya'akov could have answered, "There is a difference here. I was saving the future of the Jewish people, and you were merely saving yourself! Furthermore, legally, marriage demands that each partner accept the other as his or her spouse, and I do not accept you as my wife! You were meant for Eisav!" (Rashi, Bereishis 29:17)
True. However, in spite of this answer to Leah, we must note that Ya'akov never abandoned Leah, nor was their marriage annulled. In fact, as the Torah testifies, Ya'akov grows to love Leah. Eventually, it becomes clear that Leah was also meant for Ya'akov from the beginning. How? Why? What changed Ya'akov's perspective on the situation?
Perhaps, there was an additional element to the dialogue mentioned above by the Aitz Yosef, and perhaps it went something like this?
"How could you do this to me?! How could you pretend to be Rachel when all along you were Leah!?" Ya'akov asked angrily. "What are you asking me about?" Leah answered innocently. "What do you mean what am I asking you about?" Ya'akov demanded. "You know full well that you were supposed to marry Eisav, not me!" Ya'akov pressed. "I did!" Leah answered.
Pause. Leah's answer would have been confusing, and it would have forced Ya'akov to ask, "How's that?" to which Leah would have had to explain, "When you bought the birthright and took the blessings, you, for all intents and purposes, became Eisav!"
After all, Yitzchak did state:
"It is the voice of Ya'akov, but the hands of Eisav." (Bereishis 27:22).
-as if to say:
"Whoever stands before me now can't be the Ya'akov I knew, because he is a simple person who does little else other than learn Torah. It certainly can't be the Eisav I knew, because he's not so quick to thank G-d for his successes. Whoever you are, you are a hybrid of the two!"
In other words, what Ya'akov learned that day from Leah was that buying the birthright and taking the blessings in place of Eisav was far more than a symbolic gesture on history's part. Rather, as different as Ya'akov felt from Eisav to that very day, he found out from Leah that there was a lot of Eisav within him. After all, they were twin brothers to begin with!
What a shock that must have been for Ya'akov, a real awakening for a man that, up until then, had done everything he could to distance himself from his evil brother and his ways. Now, it seemed from Leah and history, that there was a part of his brother that had been following him around everywhere he went-inside his very being!
The implications of this reality would have been frighteningly clear to Ya'akov immediately. Within the father of the future Jewish people, and therefore within the people themselves, was a potential to become Eisav-like (we see the truth of this throughout Jewish history, in almost every period). Therefore, for the sake of all his future descendants, Ya'akov personally felt compelled to confront Eisav, but not just any Eisav, but specifically the "Eisav" within himself, to purge himself of his own "Eisavness" as much as he could. That meant, apparently, a rendezvous with Eisav's protecting angel, wherever and whenever that might be.
It turned out to be by the Yavok [Jabbok] river, an eastern tributary of the Jordan river, north of the Dead Sea:
He arose that night, and took his two wives, two handmaids, and his eleven children, and crossed the Yavok river ... Ya'akov was left alone, and there he wrestled ... (Bereishis 32:22-24)
Rashi seemingly senses nothing extraordinary about the name of this river, and says nothing other than "Yavok" was the "name of the river." Then again, as Rashi points out from time-to-time, he only comments to provide clarity on the simple explanation of the verse. Deeper explanations are the role of the midrashim and Kabbalah. And, in this case, they provide exactly that.
To begin with, there is:
Within [the name] "Ya'akov" is the mystery of "Yavok," whose letters (yud, bais, kuf) stand for the words, "y'aneinu v'yom kareinu"-"on that day He will answer us"; the mystery of "Yavok" is very, very deep, because three names [of G-d] numerically equal "Yavok" ... (Yalkut Reuveini, Aikev, 2)
According to this midrash, the word "Yavok" is actually an abbreviation for three words which mean, "on that day He will answer us." On which day, and who will answer us? Well, according to every other usage of this phrase, it always refers to G-d redeeming the Jewish people from exile once-and-for-all-an awesome day in history.
This would make a lot of sense, given that the rabbis view Ya'akov's all-night struggle with the angel of Eisav as an allusion to the "night" of exile the Jewish people were destined to endure (Rabbeinu Bachaye; Targum Yonason; Tanchuma). Surviving the angel and proving victorious in the morning is, therefore, the allusion to the Jewish people reaching the Final Redemption in the days of Moshiach.
In fact, of all the accounts in the Torah, very few are the source of as much symbolism as the battle with the angel that night. Therefore, the more symbolic the struggle was for Ya'akov to become Yisroel, the more symbolic the name "Yavok" becomes of that struggle. Ya'akov was the twin-brother of Eisav; Yisroel is not, and the Yavok river, therefore, symbolized the transformation from Ya'akov to Yisroel, as the following reveals:
... If a person will endeavor to learn the hidden wisdom of Torah, that is, the secrets of Torah (Kabbalah), then he will merit to receive his Neshamah (third level of soul after "Nefesh" and "Ruach") ... and add level to level, and wisdom to wisdom, then he will be called a "Complete Person" ... When a person only has his Nefesh, then he receives only from "aleph-dalet-nun-yud"; If he merits to receive his Ruach, then he receives from "yud-heh-vav-heh"; when he learns the mysteries of Torah, then he receives also from "aleph-heh-yud-heh". When the three names are added together, the gematria is "Yavok" ... (Sha'ar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 18, p. 51)
From this quote of the Arizal, it is clear that "Yavok" is not merely the name of the river that Ya'akov just happened to meet an angel, fight with him, prevail, and receive a name change. Yavok is the word that alludes to the very spiritual perfection-and redemption-that transforms a "Ya'akov" into a "Yisroel." This is why, perhaps, the name Ya'akov itself has the word yavok within it, as if to allude to Ya'akov's potential to become a Yisroel.
And, this is why Yavok speaks of the time that G-d will answer us, because that is the day of redemption, the time that we stop being the twin brother of Eisav, and stop sharing his tendencies, which we have done so meticulously at times throughout history. We have been, to borrow the vernacular, better Greeks than the Greeks themselves at times. Ya'akov may have physically crossed the Yavok river thousands of years ago, but every Jew since has had to cross his own Yavok river at some point in time, to become a true and eternal Yisroel.
How much more so is this the case in our fast-paced, fast assimilating society, where almost anything goes! How many Jews today even know about Ya'akov, and their inherent potential to rise above our surrounding Eisavian society, to become a Yisroel? How many Jews care to change their lifestyles?
It is interesting to note, a rabbi pointed (half-seriously), that the letters "Y2K," which stand for the "Year 2000," when translated into Hebrew spell the work "Yavok":
y = yud
Does this mean anything special? Perhaps not. Then again, the Talmud tells us that everything that happens in life is a function of Divine Providence (Chullin 7b). In other words, according to Torah, there are no coincidences, though sometimes what we perceive as a "sign from Heaven," may in fact, be a test of faith. And sometimes, what we perceive as a test of faith, may be a sign from Heaven. And, sometimes, it may be both.
The trick in life is knowing how to understand and interpret what one perceives. This is a function of knowing Torah, and the more one knows, the better his perception of reality will match G-d's-the ultimate accomplishment for a flesh-and-blood being. The deeper and more profound that knowledge of Torah is, the deeper and more profound his understanding and interpretation of reality will be.
Who even first coined the term, "Y2K"? Personally, I don't know, but it is an interesting and unusual term, and that's what counts the most:
"That which is from G-d is wondrous in our eyes." (Tehillim 118:23)
What are the odds of these three letters spelling the word "yavok"? Does it really make a difference in the end? At the very least, it is reminder that all of us have to cross our own "Yavok river" at some point in our lives. And, as the nation struggles for a definition of "What is a Jew?," we, as a nation, are approaching a national Yavok river in need of crossing as well-"forced" upon us by the computer age. Remember, if it catches our attention, it is a sign from Heaven regardless of what others think.
We live in very, very interesting times. Everything is moving so fast these days. There are so many influences, so many distractions. It is so very difficult to be simple these days, pure, and therefore, Torah-true. What does the year 5760/2000 hold for the Jewish people, and the world in general? No one quite knows for sure, but everyone wonders with mixed emotions, curiosity combined with an element of concern, that, for some, grows with each passing day.
What we have to realize is that it is the Yavok river that we are approaching, that awesome day that G-d "will answer us," after thousands of years of exile. What does it depend upon? It depends upon a willingness on the nation's part to confront the Eisav within us, to expunge ourselves of it, to fight with heavenly beings and man, and to prevail.
Then, and only then, will we finally assume the name "Yisroel," forever.
(Mon, 9 Aug 1999, Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Jacob had wrested the blessing of the birthright from his brother Esau; but it was by cunning and deceit, and he had been obliged to flee from his wrath in consequence. And now that he desired to return to the land of promise and his father's house, and to enter upon the inheritance promised him in his father's blessing; Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, which filled him with great alarm. As he felt too weak to enter upon a conflict with him, he prayed to the covenant God for deliverance fom the hand of his brother, and the fulfilment of the covenant promises. The answer of God to this prayer was the present wrestling with God, in which he was victorious indeed, but not without carrying the marks of it all his life long in the dislocation of his thigh. Jacob's great fear of Esau's wrath and vengeance, which he could not suppress...had its foundation in his evil conscience, in the consciousness of the sin connected with his wilful and treacherous appropriation of the blessing of the first-born. To save him from the hand of his brother, it was necessary that God should first meet him as an enemy, and show him that his real opponent was God Himself, and that he must first of all overcome Him before he could hope to overcome his brother. And Jacob overcame God; not with the power of the flesh however, with which he had hitherto wrestled for God against man (God convinced him of that by touching his hip, so that it was put out of joint), but by the power of faith and prayer, reaching by firm hold of God even to the point of being blessed, by which he proved himself to be a true wrestler of God, who fought with God and with men, i.e. who by his wrestling with God overcame men as well. And whilst by the dislocation of his hip the carnal nature of his previous wrestling was declared to be powerless and wrong, he received in the new name of Israel the prize of victory, and at the same time directions from God how he was henceforth to strive for the cause of the Lord.--By his wrestling with God, Jacob entered upon a new stage in his life. As a sign of this, he received a new name, which indicated, as the result of this conflict, the nature of his new relation to God. But whilst Abram and Sarai, from the time when God changed their names (17:5,15), are always called by their new names; in the history of Jacob we find the old name used interchangeably with the new. "For the first two names denoted a change into a new and permanent position, effected and intended by the will and promise of God; consequently the old names were entirely abolished. But the name Israel denoted a spiritual state determined by faith; and in Jacob's life the natural state, determined by flesh and blood, still continued to stand side by side with this." Jacob's new name was transmitted to his descendants, however, who were called Israel as the covenant nation. For as the blessing of their forefather's conflict came down to them as a spiritual inheritance, so did they also enter upon the duty of preserving this inheritance by continuing in a similar conflict.
(Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 1, The Pentateuch)