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Surrounded by Angels

Vayetze 5776 / 21 November 2015

November 23, 2015

One reading technique I learned from my teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, is something she calls “bracketed reading:” looking at just the first and last elements of a story, parshah, or even an entire book of the Torah, taking those elements as a frame that shapes our understanding of the content in between. This morning’s parshah, Vayetze, is a particularly straightforward example; several parallels jump out right away. Ourparshah opens on Jacob on the run, escaping from his brother as their relationship disintegrates violently; and at the end he is once again running away, this time escaping his father-in-law Lavan’s abusive schemes. Jacob’s experiences in both places leave him touched he bestows a personal name upon the place.[1] But perhaps most telling, the beginning and end of our parshah makes use of two unusual terms: the powerful verb וַיִּפְגַּע, “encounter,”[2] appears in both passages but only five other times throughout the Bible;[3] and the phrase מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ־לֹהִים, “angels of God,”[4] also in both passages, appears nowhere else in Tanakh.

Encounters with angels frame parashat Vayetze, and indeed angels become a key motif throughout Jacob’s story — but the Torah never explicitly defines the role of angels in the world.[5] Jacob seems to understand them as guardians — immediately upon waking from his dream, he prays for God’s protection and sustenance.[6] His vision of a ladder, a transit point for angels going and coming, underscores Jacob’s vulnerability, particularly as the angels ascend first, appearing to move away. Troubled by the angels ascending before descending, Rashi explains the vision as a changing of the guard: the angels who protected Jacob in the Land of Israel go off duty, while a new set come to guard him in his travels outside the Land.[7] Hizkuni, another French commentator a few centuries after Rashi, goes a step further and suggests that the angels’ true home is here on earth with us; they ascend temporarily, in the way a man might go up to the attic to retrieve some object before returning to dwell in the main house.[8]

Although we find no mention of angels throughout the lengthy middle of the parshah, both commentaries suggest that Jacob’s guardian angels remain with him. Why, then, does the Torah emphasize the two encounters, and makes no mention of the angels’ presence while Jacob lives in Lavan’s household? The Lithuanian-American rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch (1895-1956) notes the similarities we have already identified between the two encounters, but then points out a significant difference: in the opening story, Jacob encounters a place where he sees a vision of angels; at the end, Jacob encounters the angels directly. For Bloch, the difference comes once Jacob leaves Lavan’s household and defines his own way of walking in the world.[9] 

Although Lavan made a cameo appearance two weeks ago, in this Torah portion we get to know him well. Lavan always strikes me as one of the most familiar Bible characters; he seems like someone who would fit right into our world of 24/7 news commentary, never-ending political campaigns, and social media-fueled insecurity. Above all else, Lavan is a cynical realist: in a world of winners and losers, better to be the one taking even if that requires deceit or outright force. Fear drives Lavan: fear of Jacob’s growing material and social power; fear of losing his wealth to an outsider who has joined his circle; fear of losing his daughters and grandchildren to a different way of life. Lavan’s fear deprives him of the ability to see the humanity in others; instead, he treats all the others in his story as objects and instruments. How else could he justify exchanging one daughter for the other in marriage? He seems not to recognize or care that his manipulation impacts three other people — not only Rachel, but Leah and Jacob as well. Lavan acts from a place of fear throughout our story, and yet in a cruel irony this very behavior brings his fears to fruition in the final scene, as Jacob, his family, and his flock head back to Canaan.

The angels have been with Jacob all along, but he becomes aware of them only once he frees himself of Lavan’s worldview. Lavan’s cynicism, his instinct to see and expect the worst in others, keeps Jacob from recognizing the angels around him. The Greek word angelos, from which we get the English “angel,” holds the same meaning as the Hebrew מַלְאַךְ: “messenger.” In either language, the word can apply to a human messenger or to a heavenly being sent on a divine mission. No surprise, then, that when we do encounter actual angels in the Torah — here and in other places — they always appear in transit. Jacob’s dream of the ladder evokes this sense of mission and purpose most clearly: “A ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”[10] Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the leader of 19th-century German modern orthodoxy, explains that the angels travel up and down in order to compare the actual state of our lives with the ideal set out for us in Heaven:

[Jacob] sees that man’s fate is not decided on earth, in the physical world. He sees that God’s messengers ascend the ladder and look at the ideal image of man as he should be, and descend and compare this ideal image to the image of man as he actually is. By this standard they then deal with him for good or for bad.[11]

The angels move up and down, comparing the ideal vision of how we should live with the reality they find on the ground. Rav Hirsch’s interpretation reminds me of a well-known story from the Talmud, which also serves as the source for the song “Shalom Aleikhem” that we sing on Friday nights. Each Shabbat evening, as we return home, two angels come with us — one good and the other bad. If the angels come in and find the home warm and inviting, prepared for Shabbat, with a peaceful atmosphere, the good angel blesses us, “Let it be like this again another time,” and the bad angel is compelled to answer, “Amen.” But if the angels come in and find the house dark, the food cold, and the family quarelling — then the bad angel curses, “Let it be like this again another time,” and the good angel is compelled to answer, “Amen.”[12] How interesting that the blessing offered by the good angel and the curse invoked by the bad angel should be literally the same: “Let it be like this again another time.” This story emphasizes the extent to which our present behavior shapes our future circumstances. If we work to build homes that are filled with love, caring, and support for one another, our lives will be even more filled with those qualities; and, God forbid, the opposite will hold true as well. And no matter what scale we look at — individual families, a community, a city, nation, or even humanity as a whole — the same process plays out. The angels who accompany us day by day ascend the ladder, compare our lives as lived to the ideal we strive toward, and bless us accordingly.

It needs to be said: we live in frightening times. Paris last week, Israel this week, and here at home we face deep existential questions about who we are as Americans — Syrian refugees, the undocumented immigrants already on our shores, wages, healthcare, race, class, gender. With each successive crisis, as the challenges mount, Lavan’s voice grows stronger. “Us against them.” “It’s not safe to trust others.” “If we give, there won’t be enough left for us.” Jacob’s experiences in parashat Vayetze speak out against this voice, offering us another choice. This week, in the face of so much violence and danger, the Torah asks us: what do we want our future — as Jews, as Americans, as human beings — to look like? I’m not asking what you think is likely or practical; I’m asking you to take seriously the idea that, up in Heaven, God holds an image of what our lives should represent, and that we are constantly evaluated against that model. Each of us walks through life with a pair of angels, one for good and the other not-so-much, and at any moment they might call out: “Let it be like this again another time.” It’s up to each of us to decide which angel speaks.

[1]        Gen. 28:19, 32:3.

[2]        Gen. 28:11, 32:2.

[3]        Ex. 5:20, 23:4; 1 Samuel 10:5; Isaiah 64:4; Amos 5:19.

[4]        Gen. 28:12, 32:2.

[5]        See “Angelology” in Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 383-384

[6]        Gen. 28:20-22.

[7]        Rashi, Gen. 28:12 and Siftei Hakhamim n. 60.

[8]        Hizkuni, Gen. 28:12.

[9]        Cited in Peninim me-Shulhan Gavohah, Vayetze.

[10]        Gen. 28:12.

[11]        The Hirsch Chumash (tr. Daniel Haberman), Gen. 28:12. Cf. Ralbag, Gen. 28:12.

[12]        Shabbat 119b.

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