In this week’s parsha, we find the famous episode of Ya’akov Avinu’s fight with the malach. It’s brought down in different seforim that this malach was the epitome of the yetzer hara, or some even say, the satan himself. Because of this, the malach attacked Ya’akov Avinu and not the other avos because the essence of Ya’akov Avinu was the truth of Torah which was diametrically opposed to everything the malach stood for.
The question really lies in the aftermath of their battle, when Ya’akov Avinu asks the malach his name. The Malach responds, “Why is that you ask my name?” With this, the conversation ends and the malach blesses Ya’akov and they both go on their separate ways. The ba’alei mussar all ask very similar questions regarding this episode. What exactly was the malach answering? From the fact that Ya’akov accepted his answer seems to indicate that it was a full answer, however he answered Ya’akov’s question with another question! What’s the pshat in these psukim?
The ba’alei mussar answer this question with a very deep idea which is very applicable to each individual. They say that the malach’s retort wasn’t merely dodging the question, rather it was the answer. “Why is it that you ask my name?” wasn’t a question back to Ya’akov- rather it was the actual name of the malach.
What’s in a name? In Parshas Breishis, it says that Hashem brought every animal in front of Adam Harishon and he called each one by its name. The meforshim point out that Adam knew what to call each animal by looking into its essence and then calling it a name which describes it. That is, the essence of anything we can find in the world is alluded to by its name. (This idea is also brought up in regard to naming children. Seforim bring down that when a parent names a child, there’s a special ruach hakodesh which rests on him to be able to call the child after its essence, and if the child is named after a person, the child assumes a piece of the identity of the person he was being named after.)
With this understanding behind what a name is, when the angel was telling Ya’akov his name, he wasn’t just saying what he happened to be called; rather he was revealing his essence. This malach was the shoresh of ra, he was the epitome of the yetser hara. And how does he describe his essence? “Why do you ask my name?”, that is- don’t ask questions! Don’t think about it! That’s the essence of the yetzer hara. To blind us from thinking. Once we begin to think and ask questions, the yetzer hara lacks its essence and is then revealed as nothing.
This idea can be brought out with a mashal. Before modern technology, movies were shown by portraying images onto a screen via a projector. To someone who didn’t understand how the system worked, he would think that there’s an actual reality happening on the screen! Yet to the thinking individual who knew how the movie worked, he needed to only shine a flashlight onto the screen to reveal the reality that there was nothing there.
The same is true with our yetzer hara. He fools us into thinking that he’s this serious reality! And even more so, he tricks us into not asking questions. When a person is always thinking about his life and his purpose, he doesn’t fall into the hands of the yetzer hara. It’s impossible to have the conscious thought that one is standing in front of Hashem and still rebel against His will! Rather, that’s not the way the yetzer hara gets us. He gets us by convincing us not to ask his name – to cease our constant thinking and meditation. Only by doing that can he fool us towards sin.
This yesod is very deep. Within mussar, there are many different approaches for one to work on himself. In one such approach, the emphasis is put on understanding the self and the individual components which comprise the self. With this understanding, the hope is that we can come to a heightened level of consciousness and control. One of the major parts of the self which then needs definition is the yetzer hara. And for that we have this pasuk. The yetzer hara is really nothingness. We just believe he’s our greatest enemy because we fail to ask his name. So, the next time the fight with the yetzer hara comes to the door, all we need to do is look at it and ask, “What’s your name? Who are you? What do you want?” to which he’ll be forced to concede that in reality, he’s really nothing.