Yaakov and the Angelic Messengers

parashas Vayishlach 5782

After a treaty was made with Laban, Jacob’s Uncle who would have done him harm were it not for H’Shem’s intervention, when He appeared to Laban in a dream saying, “do not speak to Jacob either good or evil” (Genesis 31:24), Jacob encountered angels of G-d (Genesis 32:2). “When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘this is G-d’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim” (32:3). The Hebrew word, mahanaim means two camps: “the one consisting of the angels ministering outside the Holy Land who had come with him thus far, the other, of those ministering in the Land of Israel who had come to meet him”(Midrash Tanchuma, Vayishlach 3; Rashi, sefaria.org).

So, Jacob received a new band of angels to accompany his entourage. This sets the stage for the next verse, that begins parashas Vayishlach: “Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau” (32:4). The Hebrew word translated here as “messengers,” is malachim. This word can also mean “angels.” Or HaChaim comments that in all likelihood, Jacob actually sent angels. The reason given is that “since Jacob had already met with these angels and they had obviously come to help him, he was permitted to use them as messengers for a task that human messengers might prove inadequate for” (Or HaChaim on Genesis 32:4, sefaria.org).

The implication of the commentary is that Esau might not have received human messengers with all the due respect of a peaceful diplomatic mission. Rather, he might have responded in a less than civil way; and, perhaps even would have brought harm upon the messengers. Yet, angelic messengers would have a more impressive appearance; and, hopefully, would elicit the proper awe and respect that they would deserve as divine beings. While it is that man was created in G-d’s image, and, therefore, all of mankind should respect his fellowman for this reason alone, perhaps, this truth would not compel Esau to do so.

Nobody can argue against the impressive nature of an angel’s appearance; the connection to the divine is obvious. Yet, to be able to see the divine spark within another human being is not an easy task, for the divinity is less apparent. Chassidus teaches to see past the outer “shell,” so to speak, of a person; that is to say, to see beyond appearances. Because Esau was able to set his resentment towards his brother Jacob aside, when he did eventually meet him after twenty-two years, he demonstrated that his humane affections for his brother were still intact. As Torah records, “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Existential Encounter

parashas Vayishlach 5781

“And Jacob was left alone.”

– Genesis 32:25, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob, who had recently acquired a family, as well as a secure livelihood, after twenty years of working for his Uncle Laban, was finally returning home. Yet, he would have to face the consequences of unfinished business with his brother Esau, who may have still been harboring a grudge against him after all of the years. More significantly, Jacob will find that he first needs to face himself, in acknowledgment of his own character. Was he the deceiver, who reappropriated the blessing of the first born that should have gone to his brother Esau? Or was he the right man to have obtained the blessing, because he truly represented the values that were destined to be passed on to his descendants?

If the blessing had gone to Esau, then the Abrahamic legacy may have been squandered, made less substantial by a lack of spiritual vision on the part of the recipient. For, Esau was primarily focused on Olam HaZeh (This World), where instant gratification, hedonism, and the base desires of the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) prevail over the godly soul (nefesh ha’elokit), unless reined in under the guiding principles of higher values, such as those found in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as those inculcated by the commandments, and all throughout kitvei kodesh (holy scripture).

Although Jacob upheld those higher values, he had to know within himself, whether or not he was truly worthy of having received the blessing. His deference towards Esau exemplifies a change in his character. Jacob sent generous gifts ahead of him, in order to appease the anger of Esau; later, he will bow seven times as he approaches Esau. Yet, before that meeting, he was left alone at night with himself, his conscience, and the prospect of losing everything he had obtained in life the next day. One can only imagine what thoughts were occupying his mind at this pivotal moment in his life; for, the burdens of his past must have weighed heavily upon him.

The Torah records that “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:35, JPS). This man was really an angel, sent to detain Jacob until the morning, when he would have to face Esau; as the Rashbam explains, Jacob had considered fleeing, to avoid the confrontation with Esau. Yet, during the wrestling match that ensued, Jacob prevailed, thus showing that he indeed realized his weight in gold, not the gold found in the earth, rather the gold of spiritual value, in the eyes of G-d. As confirmation of his integrity, the angel informed him, that he would no longer be called Jacob (heel, deceit); he was given the name, Israel (uprightness, integrity).

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