Vayishlach: Angels in Human Form

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Oh my goodness, there are only ten more shopping days till Hanukkah!

Well, that’s too stressful to think about, so let’s study Torah instead. This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, is the story of Yaakov’s return to Caanan/Israel after 20 years with his uncle Lavan in Haran. Upon returning to the Land of Israel, Yaakov sends messengers ahead to
his brother Esav, with gifts and messages of reconciliation. Still, he fears his brother will attack him, so he divides his camp for protection. He stays alone on the night before meeting his brother, and has a mystical wrestling which results in a name change: Yaakov,
the deceiver, is now Yisrael, the “God-wrestler.”

Yaakov and Esav do meet, but part ways. Yaakov travels to Shechem, where his daughter Dinah is raped by the local prince; Shimon and Levi, her brothers, wreak a
terrible vengeance on the town. Rakhel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, and the mother of Yosef, dies in childbirth, and is buried near Bethlehem. The parsha concludes with a detailed genealogy of Esav’s family.

At the beginning of the parsha, when Yaakov is heading into the land of Caanan/Israel with a large troop of family, servants, and animals, he sends messengers ahead to his brother, hoping to soften the grudge of the deception that happened twenty years ago. The messengers return with the report that Esav is heading towards him with four hundred men, and Yaakov thinks his plea didn’t work. What’s interesting here is that Rashi insists on reading this part of the story in a way that makes things a bit mystical, when the words
are very clear, and don’t seem to cry out for a creative interpretation.

The word at issue is “malach,” which can mean “messenger,” or “angel,” but that’s really
the same meaning, since in classic Jewish sources, an “angel” is a messenger or message-bearing manifestation from God. The first verse of the parsha says simply:

“Yaakov sent messengers [malachim] ahead of him to his brother Esav. . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:4)

Well, as I said, that’s not complicated- if you want to send someone a message, you send a messenger, at least in the days before email and fax.

Rashi insists that these “malachim” are “actual angels.” Many of the classic Torah commentators don’t agree with him, but perhaps there’s a way to understand
Rashi’s comment while preserving the plain meaning of the words. I believe (not all commentators do) that Yaakov was truly trying to reconcile with his brother Esav- the brother whom he had cheated and deceived so many years earlier. I think that Yaakov had grown
and matured, and wanted to do t’shuvah, repentance, by fixing the relationship with his brother that he himself had broken.

Perhaps he thought that Esav would not believe that Yaakov wanted to make peace, and thus he (Esav) needed some time to think about it, or perhaps he wanted to go out of his way to show Esav that he meant these overtures- but in either case, the messengers that
Yaakov sent were on a mission of peacemaking between brothers. They were sent ahead so that the sacred purposes of reconciliation and forgiveness might be better achieved. In other words, perhaps what made the messengers into “angels” was not the metaphysics of
their existence, but the holiness of their mission. Yaakov sent the messengers, but they were agents of Divine Purpose- just as any of us would be if we were trying our best to help somebody fix broken brotherhood and reconcile with alienated friends or family.

The angels that Yaakov sent might have been men, but their task was from God, Who desires that we live in peace. Seen this way, Rashi’s comment speaks a spiritual truth: when we carry forth to do the work of peacemaking, we become angels, bearers of sacred
truth and a Divine task, “messengers of God” in human form.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- here’s the link to the text of the parsha and additional commentary:

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