Thursday, December 07, 2006

Real Angels?

Whew! Now that I am finished with my final paper for this semester of graduate school, I'm back!

The first verse of Vayishlah seems innocent enough:

And Yaaqov sent messengers before him to his brother Esav; to the Land of Seir, the field of Edom.

However, Rashi, following the Midrash Rabba, offers a startling comment here:

"And Yaaqov sent messengers [malachim]." Real malachim - i.e., angels.

The idea that Yaaqov sent actual angels to communicate with Esav is problematic for obvious reasons. What do the Rabbis mean to teach us with this unusual "twist" on the narrative?

A closer examination of the Midrash reveals that it is playing off of a fascinating juxtaposition in the Torah. At the conclusion of last week's Parasha, Vayetse, we read:

And Yaaqov went along his way, and angels of God encountered him. And, when he saw them, Yaaqov said, "This is a camp of God" - and he called the name of the place "Mahanayim" [camps].

When our Parasha begins with a reference to malachim, then, it is tempting to link them to the malachim who've just been mentioned previously, i.e., the camp of angels revealed to Yaaqov.

Still, though, we must explain the role that angels play in this entire narrative. When Yaaqov left his parents home, he was shown a prophetic vision in which angels ascended and descended a ladder. Upon his return to the Holy Land, angels again appear to him. What purpose do these encounters with angels serve?

In order to explain the function of angels here, we must consider Yaaqov's mindset at the moment he was exiled from Israel. He probably interpreted that turn of events as a sign that he was officially excluded from the Divine plan that had begun to unfold through the lives of his father and grandfather. Like Yishmael before him, Yaaqov may have suspected that he had been cast out of the Abrahamic household for good.

The angels in the dream signify Hashem's reply to Yaaqov's concerns. As Rashi explains, Yaaqov witnessed the angels of Israel symbolically returning to heaven while the angels of the Diaspora descended to accompany him on his journey. The message was clear - although the trip to Haran represented a long, challenging and quite unexpected "detour" in the Patriarch's life, this was all a part of the Divine plan. Living with Lavan had an important role to play in Yaaqov's development, and this itself was directed by Providence.

This theme is also brought out by the angels that greet Yaaqov upon his return to Israel. These, according to Rashi, were the angels of the Land of Israel who came to resume their escort of Yaaqov after more than twenty years of separation. The fact that Parashat Vayetse begins and ends with angelic encounters underscores the idea that everything that occurred to Yaaqov during his exile was a part of the Divine masterplan.

The same can be said regarding Yaaqov's reconnection with his brother Esav. Yaaqov's outreach to his brother was not sentimentally or personally motivated. On the contrary, emotionally speaking, it is unlikely that Yaaqov was enthusiastic about the reunion. However, he recognized that the fulfillment of God's promise to him was contingent upon a rekindling of the relationship torn asunder so many years back. He realized that he would never be able to establish himself as the legitimate successor of Avraham and Yitschaq without the tacit approval of his older sibling. Yaaqov saw this "political move" as yet another necessary step in the implementation of Hashem's plan.

With this in mind, we can understand what the Rabbis mean when they say that the messengers Yaaqov sent were "real angels". They don't intend to suggest that Yaaqov dispatched spiritual beings to communicate with his brother. What they are trying to teach us is that the reconciliation of Yaaqov and Esav was also a crucial component of the Divine agenda.

Although the messengers Yaaqov sent were human beings, the objective they pursued - that of bringing Yaaqov and Esav back together - was a Godly one. In this sense, it is appropriate to say that they were "angels" dedicated to executing a holy mission.


Anonymous said...

It started with a comment here and ended with a full post on my blog.

Thanks for stimulating my thoughts. Shabbat Shalom

Yehuda said...

That was a beautiful explanation of the midrash.

One question: why would Ya'akov think that he was excluded from the Divine plan? Before Ya'akov left Yitzhak said to him:
וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ--לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם.

Perhaps he was afraid he was not personally worthy of the b'racha of his father.

Yehuda said...

As a great man once said, "Please resspond! Please Resspond!"

Barnaby said...

Rabbi, you're in grad school? I had no idea.