Shabbat VaYishlakh: Angels Among Us

Do we believe in angels? It surprises me how often I am asked that question – that, or another one that asks about the “we” of Jews, and the “supposed to” of our beliefs. When you think about it, the whole idea that you are “supposed” to “believe” is already a curiosity. More, it is a non-sequitur: one believes, or one does not. 

True, any religion sets forth tenets for belief. That is the official level of a religion’s teachings.Then there are the traditional folk beliefs, what you might call the comfortable level, or the superstitious level, of religion. What, then, is the official status of angels in Judaism? In other words, Does Judaism expect a Jew to believe in angels?

Yes and no, and yes again.

Yes: we can clearly see in the parashat hashavua for this week, VaYishlakh, that the Torah does make reference to angels. Or, at least, it looks that way in the English translation. This leads us to a good rule of thumb for exploration of Jewish belief: don’t settle for the translation. As David Ben Gurion warned, “reading the Torah in translation is like kissing your beloved through a handkerchief”. You may not be able to read the ancient Hebrew of the Torah fluently, but remember that there is always more depth than we can access on the surface, and searching out the deeper meaning of a word, a phrase or a belief may be as close to you as inquiring after the Hebrew terminology.

No: the word for “angel” in Hebrew is mal’akh, which translates from the Hebrew simply as “messenger”. Our parashah this week begins VaYishlakh Ya’akov mal’akhim, “Jacob sent messengers.” The plain sense of the Torah is that he sent people from his large encampment, probably young men, fleet of foot, to run before him and carry a message. Why is the very same word then sometimes translated “angels”? It depends upon the dispatcher: if G-d sends a messenger, it’s an angel. Probably with big wings, maybe even breathing fire and smoke (in his prophecies, Isaiah tells the story of just such a vision). Or perhaps simply a being in human shape, such as the messenger from G-d who struggles with Jacob by the Jabok River all night long, and insists on disappearing at daybreak, on the night before Jacob sees his estranged brother for the first time in twenty-some years. Or a perfectly-normal seeming human being who shows up in a field (we never learn his name or see him again) simply to tell Joseph to turn south in order to find his brothers (stay tuned for that one).

Yes: how is an angel a messenger? Our tradition teaches that it’s the other way around: a messenger might be an angel. If we define “angel” as “messenger of G-d” then everyone we meet might be such a carrier of a truth we need to learn. We ourselves are at any moment also such an angel, for we, in our normal human undertakings, are potentially bearing some word, some thought, some message that someone else needs to hear. As one rabbi put it, it is as if:

Each of us is a puzzle, to ourselves as to those around us. We are each a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, and we go through our lives aware that something is missing, but not knowing what it is, nor quite how to fill the holes in our own souls. Then we meet another person, and in the interchange between us, we may suddenly feel that we are more whole than we were. We know something now that we never did before, or we feel a bit more complete in ourselves. Or – and this we will never know – some word, some act, of our own may bring that same sense of being a bit more complete than before to our interlocutor.

Yes, there are winged creatures in our ancient tradition (you are allowed to chalk that up to artistic imagination, you are not required to believe in them), but also quite normal looking messengers also.

Yes, you are required to keep in mind that here are angels among us, and that you yourself are such a messenger, and to live your life aware of that gift that you carry, and that others carry for you.

Thanksgiving, the annual American day of thanks, has passed once again.Thank G-d for Shabbat, when we are reminded weekly to give thanks for all the gifts carried by all the messengers of our lives.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: What Message Do You Carry?

Two opposing sides confront each other; one has been wronged and is angry, and the other is guilty, afraid, and feels that it must defend its very life. Ferguson? New York? Portland Oregon last night outside the Moda Center?

No, the situation described is part of this week’s parashah; in it, Jacob and Esau walk toward their fateful confrontation. The wrong has been festering for twenty years; now is the moment of truth.

Esau is the wronged: as our commentators have put it, he was not the right person to carry on the legacy of the People of Israel, so that prerogative, in the form of the Blessing of the First Born, was taken from him by guile, against his well, without anyone even bothering to try to talk with him.

Jacob represents the side in this conflict which clearly has “systemic deficiencies”. He deceives his brother when they are young, he does it again with his mother’s collusion later in their early life, and when he has to escape the “situation” for which he is responsible, he continues to live and act in a world full of deceit in his new surroundings. 

Yet Jacob is not “all bad”; he learns from his very bad mistakes, he struggles with his own inner nature, and he does make progress. In this excellent example of teshuvah that takes a lifetime, he does begin to behave better; he does become a better person. 

And Esau is not “all innocence”; his response to being wronged is not to seek redress but to seek to murder. He may be justified in his anger, yet killing leads only to more killing, and war to more war, when what both sides need is peace, safety and mutual respect.

As we try to understand the outrage and protests erupting all around us in instance after instance of police violence and the suffering of the African-American community, we hear these same ideas voiced in every conversation: the Cleveland Police Department is found to have “systemic deficiencies”. Of course, that does not mean that the police department is all bad. Most police officers are good, and try their best to serve their community. Yet for many generations much hurt has been caused, and teshuvah is clearly necessary. The African-American community and all those who stand in solidarity with them are naturally, righteously angry. Yet anger is destructive, the Rabbis teach; it is the most dangerous emotion of all, and must be channeled lest it lead to sin.

Many years later, Jacob approaches a face-to-face confrontation with Esau. In our parashat hashavua that is precisely the scene, and it echoes the protests which bring protesters and police face-to-face. Years of righteous anger and defensiveness underlie such a meeting; days of brooding, nights of obsessing over possible outcomes. 

What should Jacob do? How might Esau choose to act? In the first verse of our parashah, we read (Genesis 32.4):

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.

4 Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

The word for “messengers” in Hebrew is מלאכים, mal’akhim, which is also the term used in the Torah for “angel”. This is because the function of an angel in ancient Israelite belief was primarily that of being a messenger for the word of G-d. For us the coincidence of these two translations offers a significant insight: what seems to you to be simply a messenger sent by someone else to you is actually, just possibly, also someone who bears for you a word of G-d, that is, a message from the Universe that you need to hear.

Jewish mystical speculation suggests that each of us, reflecting G-d’s image as we do, function as messengers to each other, in ways of which we are unaware. Both in word and in act we send the message forth of some truth about the world as it is, or as it should be. And of course, we do so also by the act of inaction, or by withholding a word.

We are told that on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob is up all night wrestling with a messenger. We are not told what the message is, only that Jacob needs the encounter, yet is wounded by the encounter, and limps forever after. This is the harsh reality: our nation will never completely overcome the racist “limp” inflicted upon us by the slavery our predecessors practiced. But the only way forward is to hear the message, to wrestle with it, not to turn away.

That is what Jacob finally does. He stops running away from the encounter, and he faces Esau. The key is this: what makes the encounter successful, what allows the two brothers to recognize their connection rather than that which distanced them, is the messengers that are sent first.

All of us find ourselves in the position of messenger at some point. Our Jewish tradition obligates us to step forward and recognize our responsibility in social discourse and political action. When you find yourself confronted with a messenger, can you listen? When you realize that you are in the position of messenger, what word are you carrying? By your words and acts, are you taking sides, judging justifications, and reveling in the gory details of anger and fear – or are you helping to bring Jacob and Esau together toward their longed-for reconciliation, toward the peace of wholeness and trust? 

Shabbat VaYishlakh: A Personal Aliyah Moment

This week’s parashah is VaYishlakh, “he sent”. In it we find ourselves deep into the story of Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs. He has just survived a night struggle with an angel, and then a long-delayed anxious meeting with his brother Esau. In the verses just before we begin (since we are reading the 2nd third of the parashah this year according to our Triennial Cycle), Jacob has promised Esau he will come visit, and then immediately hurried in the opposite direction. 

 

This reunion of the twin brothers after twenty years must have caused them both a certain amount of emotional upheaval, yet we don’t hear about any effect on Jacob afterward, at least not directly. Rather, the three verses with which we start are peaceful:

 

יח  וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.

 

18 Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city.

יט  וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה.

19 He bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money.

כ  וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס}

20 He established an altar there, and called it El-elohe-Israel. 

Directly after these few words, Jacob’s life will again be full of upheaval, anger and tragedy. As he will tell Pharaoh many years from now, his years are short and full of pain. But here, in these three verses, we have a sense of serenity. Just like Abraham, he traveled from the East and bought a bit of ground upon which to pitch his tent. And just like both Abraham and Isaac, he built an altar. In effect, Jacob has just made aliyah: he has “gone up” to Israel from Paddam Aram.

 

In Jewish tradition, three verses are the minimum length of an aliyah, the ritual Torah reading which is preceded and followed by the Torah blessings. And here is the small insight that comes from this quiet moment in Jacob’s stressful, sad life: a moment of blessing is always possible. Our lives may feel as if we are reeling from shock to disappointment to urgency to hassle to, finally, sadness and stress. But if you can find a moment, one small moment during which you can stop and take a breath, it need not be very long – just long enough to feel the blessings that surround you despite the difficulties.

 

Try giving yourself this spiritual aliyah moment: three deep breaths. With the first, think of coming in peace – what is your wholeness? With the second, consider the grounding of your tent – where do you dwell? With the third, connect to your sense of the holy – what do you revere? 

 

And in that way, may you feel the blessing that precedes you and follows you, and keeps your soul safe in the world.