The night before Yaakov is to reunite with his brother, Esav, he encounters a mysterious assailant in Penuel. Yaakov wrestles with the attacker throughout the evening and prevails. At the conclusion of this episode, the Torah describes the following in Perek 32, pasuk 32:
וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ.
“The sun shone for him as he passed Penuel. And he limped on his upper thigh.”
The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin, daf 91, amud bet, learns that at this point, Hashem returned the daylight to Yaakov that Hashem witheld from him years earlier, when Yaakov first left the land of Israel to go to Charan.
Chazal explain that when Yaakov first left home, on his way to Charan, and arrived at that place where he dreamed the dream with the angels ascending and descending, Hashem withheld daylight from Yaakov. Hashem did that to ensure that Yaakov would sleep at that particular site. Now, twenty years later, at Penuel, Hashem has the sun rise early in the morning for Yaakov.
What message is Chazal teaching when describing an early sunset and then an early sunrise throughout this portion of Yaakov's life?
With all the arbitrary occurrences within the natural order, sunrise and sunset seem to be the cycles that we, as human beings can predict and then anticipate with the most certainty.
From the beginning to the end of Yaakov's narrative outside Israel, there is a symbolism associated with these twenty years and the foreshadowing of Yaakov's future descendants' exile and redemption. The fact that even the sun's rising and setting did not occur at the anticipated times, is an indication that even the most predictable plans did not even unfold as planned.
Chazal teach that in the history of the Jewish people and in the lives of individuals as well, it is difficult to truly predict with certainty how life's events will unfold. In Yaakov’s case, this was shown in the extreme, in the delay of nature’s most predictable events. When experiencing deviations from what we assume will occur, we pause and remember that there were those in our national history who encountered unexpected twists and turns. These events become concentrated models for us of the reality of life.
The hard truth is that we do encounter unexpected sunsets, symbolic of potential problems, loss and hardships that we cannot possibly anticipate earlier. Yet, there are also those moments in our lives where we are met with wonderful gifts, fortune, great joy and the unanticipated sunrise.
Even with the sunrise, as in the case of Yaakov, we emerge with an injury, a limp where we remember our triumph amidst great struggle. When there is failure or loss, there is an emergence - a perseverance.
Chazal want to teach the story of Yaakov to be that even with work and preparation, where we expend energy to do the best we can, the successful outcome we desire is never fully guaranteed. We still must prepare as best we can, and attempt to steer our lives in the proper direction. Since even the most predictable aspects in life cannot always come to fruition, when experiencing those successes, even when working hard for them, we offer thanksgiving when we emerge with the sun rising.