Minutes of Torah
This week we are introduced to the world of angels and particularly their interaction with a mortal. Parashat Vayishlakh opens with the Patriarch Jacob sending ‘angels’ ahead of him to his brother Esau. Jacob had not seen Esau in over twenty years; and Esau’s last words were a threat to kill Jacob for having ‘stolen’ the blessings from Isaac. The word malachim, which is often translated as “messengers,” is here interpreted by Rashi as “angels.”
Later that night, Jacob wrestles a “man” all night, despite the text telling us that Jacob was alone. Several commentators write that this “man” was an angel.
What is an angel? What are these sometimes corporeal, sometimes energetic manifestations that arrive to deliver our messages, save us from harm, and keep us up all night in a struggle?
There are many instances of angels as saviors throughout the Book of Genesis. An angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac in the Akeidah. An angel takes Lot and his family by the hand and forcibly removes them from their burning city. An angel speaks to a crying and distraught Hagar in the desert, directing her eyes to water and sustenance. In these instances, angels emerge when danger is present.
We have all had experiences with these types of angels. Perhaps it was that person on the train sitting in the row behind you that tapped on your sleeping shoulder letting you know that your stop is coming up next. Or the person that came running to you just after your phone had slipped out of your pocket as you were about to enter the taxi.
For me: it was that morning in Seminary class when I was feeling a flu come over me and rushed to the bathroom. I made it in time, but left such a mess, and with no strength, just lying on the floor. A nanosecond passed and one of my classmates came in, quickly surveyed the situation, and told me to close my eyes. A few minutes later, he invited me to open them, and everything was gone. My angel.
Of course, I am not suggesting this classmate was an actual emissary from heaven (although one can never be sure), but the strength of his kindness was so powerful and left such an indelible impact on me that I felt graced with something divine. Perhaps the words of the Psalm that appear in the siddur capture what I felt about my angel that morning:
“What is man, that You should remember him, and the son of man, that You should be mindful of him? Yet You have made him slightly less than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and majesty.”
These givers of love in the world truly exemplify that spirit — acting with goodness only “slightly less than the angels.”
Yet, we are still left with the enigmatic nameless angel with whom Jacob wrestles all night long. Who or what is this angel trying to communicate? What message was he sent to deliver? In the wrestling match, Jacob insists that the angel give him a blessing before he will let him go. The angel declares that Jacob will no longer be his name, but rather,
“Israel, because you have striven with an angel of God and with men, and you have prevailed.”
Jacob leaves the wrestling match a transformed man: in body, with a dislocated hip; and in name, Israel; and in spirit, by having seen an angel face to face. He is closer to God. He can now reconcile with his brother.
It is said that every blade of grass has an angel hovering over it, calling to it, saying: “Grow!” The instant the angel calls forth a single urge to grow, it fades away. In the next moment, another angel appears over the same blade of grass, and it calls out, “Grow!” That angel, too, then instantly disappears, while yet another and another and another angel appears, fresh in every moment, urging the blade of grass to grow!
So too every leaf, every living being, and indeed every molecule has its angels urging it to move, to fly, to exist — to be whatever it is.
Jacob’s angel shows up as his wrestling partner to whisper the “grow!” message that Jacob needed to hear. Although limping and in pain from the fight, Jacob emerges as who he is meant to be — Israel — the father of our nation.