Upon Jacob’s return from Haran, from his father-in-law Laban’s house, he realizes it is time to confront his brother Esau, whom he had slighted over 20 years earlier. When Jacob left Esau, he was set on killing him when their father Isaac died. Jacob does not know after all these years how Esau is going to respond to seeing him again. In his preparation for the coming meeting, Jacob, according the medieval commentator Rashbam, has the thought of running away. This comes after all the other preparations, the gifts he sends to Esau, the prayers he gives and the dividing of his camp to potentially face an onslaught from an army of 400 (presumably the greater entourage). In his moment of fear and selfish thought of abandonment, G-d sends an angel to confront Jacob, getting into a struggle that lasts all night long.
What is the goal of the angel confronting Jacob? The Rashbam argues that the angel was sent to prevent Jacob from running away. Hence, the battle continues until morning, when it becomes apparent that running away is no longer an option.
Perhaps the angel is sent for a different purpose than to be a mere distraction. Up until now, Jacob has spent his life hiding, making deals, running away and overall not standing up for himself and his family. Jacob is about to face his most difficult challenge, confronting his greatest fear, his brother, whom he slighted all those years ago. In his darkest moment, he has to confront an Angel. This confrontation forces Jacob to confront his reality, he must confront Esau. This is hinted to in the Midrash which identifies the angel with the divine minister of Edom.
Angels are usually seen as merely our guardians. People speak about having an angel on their shoulders looking out from them. The angel is also a reflection of what the person needs at the time. Sometimes, the need for a guardian is not about preventing darkness and despair. Rather, the angel will be a guide to help face the fear associated with being in our darkest moments. As such, when morning comes, and Jacob has survived his angelic struggle, he can no longer be the same person. His name becomes Israel as a means of showing he has finally grown up and reached his potential, which is that of someone who doesn’t run away or trick, but faces things head on. He is now Yashar, straight, as the name Yisrael implies. When the dark moment finally occurs, we also should be able to learn how to face it head-on. No matter how much it emotionally hurts, that angelic encounter will hopefully be a means of protecting us in facing our fears instead of buckling under from them.
Hospice staff can be those angels for our patients and families. By working with families, educating them and supporting them during the dark times of death and dying, we can hope to provide them a source of strength in being able to confront death head-on as opposed to allowing the despair and sadness to be overwhelming.