The Power of Being Alone

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

ויותר יעקב לבדו

ויאבק איש עמו עד עלות השחר

“And Jacob was left alone;

and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:25)

ונשגב ה’ לבדו ביום ההוא

And the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day (Yeshayah 2:11 and 2:17)

We are familiar with the story of Yaakov wrestling the angel on his own, alone, described in this week’s parsha. The prophet, Yeshayahu describes that G-d, in the future, will have no sparring partner at the end of days and rule over all, alone. While both texts use the same adverb, on the face of it, there should be no comparison between the two descriptions. R. Berachiah in the name of R. Seemon nonetheless argues (playing off a homiletic interpretation of Deuteronomy 33:26) that Yaakov’s aloneness here parallels God’s future aloneness.

ר’ ברכיה בשם ר’ סימון אמר

אין כ-אל ומי כ-אל ישורון ישראל סבא

מה הקב”ה כתוב בו ונשגב ה’ לבדו

אף יעקב ויותר יעקב לבדו

R. Berachiah said in the name of R. Seemon,

There is none like G-d, and who is like the G-d? Yeshurun – The ‘grandfather’ Israel.

Just as it is written about the Holy Blessed One ‘And the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day’;

so too with Jacob [it is written] ‘And Jacob remained alone’

(Genesis Rabbah 77:1)

What is the basis of his comparison?

The Chassidic masters go to great length trying to equate Yaakov’s and G-d’s aloneness, focusing on the power of the individual (Bnai Yissachar) or the ability for man to connect directly to G-d during certain times and through certain powers (Degel Machane Ephraim)[1] I would like to explore a possibility of connecting the two verses on a more literal level.

Why is it necessary for the Torah to explicitly mention that Yaakov was alone? The previous verse (32:24) states that he sent the rest of his family ahead, implying that he was remaining alone. Also, the wrestling match goes on all night without interruption, which makes clear that no other people were present. The word “alone” must therefore have special significance.

I suggest on the basis of other Biblical contexts לבדו-alone connotes a degree of disconnect or separation from a larger group to which some connection remains. For example, when Yaakov presents sheep to Esav just prior to this encounter, he divides the sheep into a number of flocks, each one לבדו. (Genesis 32:17). Each flock stands separate, but they are nonetheless part of one large gift.  Similarly, in Exodus (24:2), Moshe approaches Hashem at Mount Sinai לבדו, but as a representative of the people.

The first use of “alone” in Tanakh (Genesis 2:18) introduces the creation of Eve: לא טוב היות אדם לבדו, “It is not good that the man should be alone”. Rashi there presents our opening equation between Divine and human aloneness as a cause for concern.

“לא טוב היות וכו’
שלא יאמרו שתי רשויות הן

הקדוש ברוך הוא יחיד בעליונים ואין לו זוג

וזה יחיד בתחתונים ואין לו זוג

“Is it not good that etc.” –

So that they not say there are two domains of authority:

The Holy Blessed One is singular among those above and has no counterpart

and this one is singular among those below and has no counterpart

As we noted above, the Chassidic masters do indeed stress the parallel. I contend, however, that the word “alone” in a literal sense teaches that human beings are actually part of a species, and connected: whether to their counterpart gender or to their extended family, as Yaakov was when he fought all night. Looking at the context in Yeshayahu, the Divine can also only be considered “לבדו” due to his association to lower beings. At the end of days, once humankind’s stature is lowered, they will recognize G-d’s exaltedness. The text in Genesis thus makes this connection manifest lest someone mistake human aloneness as absolute. Only through connections can one gain power to face his or her battles alone.

Rabbi Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as Director of Kosher Supervision at Wexner Heritage Village, Columbus OH.

[1]For an excellent summary of the different approaches see Itamar Eldar, “Parashat Vayishlach: ‘And Ya’akov was left alone’.” Trans. David Strauss. Yeshivat Har Etzion Virtual Beit Midrash http://vbmtorah.org/archive/chassidut/06chassidut.htm

 

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