Vayishlach: Angelic Ambassador

Why were Jacob's ambassadors angels?

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism רפאל ביטון ותלמידיו
רפאל ביטון ותלמידיו
Flash 90

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

When Yaakov (Jacob) returns home to Canaan after having spent twenty years with Laban, he understands that Esau is probably still angry with him for his receiving the firstborn blessing. Yaakov tries to appease his brother by sending him malachim bearing gifts. Who these malachim are will form the basis of our discussion today.

While malachim are often translated as human messengers sent on a specific mission, they are at least as often translated as heavenly angels who are also sent by God on a specific mission. Rashi chooses to interpret thesemalachim as malachim mamash, actual (heavenly) angels. What prompted Rashi toward this understanding?

Rabbi Bick in Chayei Moshe raises further questions. Why did Yaakov choose to send real angels? If he was sending real angels, why was Yaakov still afraid? Wouldn’t the angels protect him? If these were in fact angels, why did Esau continue approaching with 400 men?

Rabbi Scheinerman and Rabbi Feinstein share related ideas. Rabbi Scheinerman says that since Hashem created everything to serve mankind, the angels were also to serve that purpose, and Yaakov could readily use them. Rabbi Feinstein takes this idea one step further and writes that for someone on Yaakov’s exalted level, there was no difference between using man or angel. Along these lines, the Kli Yakar notes that these angels were sentmilfonov, from before him, meaning that these angels were before Yaakov and constantly accompanied him.

Nevertheless, why did Yaakov choose to send angels instead of men as his emissaries? In Shiurey Chumash, Rabbi Wolbe explains that while Yaakov was afraid of physical harm, he understood that his battle with Esau was more a spiritual battle than a physical one, a battle of good versus evil, a battle against the guardian angel of Esau (Esau’s essence). This battle would continue as Yaakov battled the angel when he was alone at the Yabok River where Esau’s angel injured his sciatic nerve, a battle that continues to this day with the marriage of Yishmael and Esau. This battle must be fought on a spiritual plane with our name Yisroel rather than Yaakov.

In concert with the spiritual center of the conflict between Yaakov and Esau, Yaakov is sending his “messengers” to Seir, the guardian angel of Esau, writes Rabbi Bick. His message says, “Im Laban garty – I have lived with Laban.” Encoded in the message as an anagram is, “I kept the taryag (613) mitzvoth.” The “angels that Yaakov sent to Laban, writes  the Vayovenu Bamikra, were the angels created through Yaakov’s mitzvah performance. But his “angels” returned to Yaakov with the message that Esau himself had 400 accusatory forces.

The Mishnat Yosef sees a duality in Yaakov’s words. Yaakov is addressing both his Master, Hashem, and Esau. If Yaakov indeed had angels at his disposal, what was he afraid of? Yaakov had gone to Laban’s house on the command of his mother. He married and created a family there. But Yaakov stayed with Laban six years longer than he felt were necessary, based on his mother’s command. He had worked fourteen years for Rachel and Leah, and an additional six years for “wages”. While he had observed many mitzvoth in the home of Laban, he could not fulfill the mitzvah of honoring his parents, and living in Israel, especially during those additional years. It was this lack of personal angels on his part and an abundance of such angels on Esau’s part that Yaakov feared.

But the angels that Yaakov is sending are “from before him.” He notes that we are rewarded not only for the mitzvah itself, but also for the steps we take to enable us to perform the mitzvah. Here Yaakov was sending the angels that he was creating with each step he took toward his parents’ home so that he could fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. So Yaakov prayed to Adoni, to my Master, to allow these angels to be his advocates against Esau. Further, these angels protect us not only physically, but also spiritually, for they create an aura and energy around us that forms our character and predisposes us to doing further good deeds or, God forbid, to further sin and evil. Additional angels and energies are created when we are tempted to sin and resist. It was these angels that Yaakov sent to Esau, writes the Ohel Moshe. Sometimes this energy is even palpable when we enter a place and we feel the sanctity or the joy that has remained there from previous encounters, writes Rabbi Wolbe. (Perhaps that is what is meant by the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel and especially of Har Habayit remains even now.)

The Shvilei Pinchas, Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, offers an additional perspective on this idea based on theZohar. These angels, writes Rabbi Friedman, were the yetzer hatov and the yetzer horo. The yetzer horo enters a person at birth, while the yetzer hatov is added at the time of bar/bat mitzvah. The mission of the yetzer hatov is to transform the yetzer horo into good. Who are these angels? These are the same two angels that, according to the Medrash, accompany a person home from shul on Friday night. According to tradition, if the home maintains a Shabbos air, if the candles are lit, the table is set, and the bed is made, the good angel declares, “May it be this way next week as well,” and the “bad” angel must answer Amen. Thus he is transformed from a negative force to a positive force.

How does this relate to Yaakov Avinu? Yaakov claimed he performed the 613 mitzvoth while in the home of Laban. Obviously no one can perform all the mitzvoth because some pertain only to men, some only to women, some only to priests, and so on. So how could Yaakov have kept all 613 mitzvoth? Because keeping Shabbos is equivalent to keeping the entire Torah. This is the idea alluded to from Rashi’s from his curt phrase that Yaakov sent malachim mamash, actual angels, an abbreviation for min mitzvath Shabbos, from the mitzvah of Shabbos. The three symbolic items the angels see on Friday night were those found in the tent of Sara Imenu and later in the Beit Hamikdosh. These are the ner tamid, the perpetual light that never went out from one Friday night to the next, the table set with the bread that in the Beit Hamikdosh never went stale from one week to the next, and theshechinah, God’s presence, which resides is a proper Jewish home on Shabbos, reminiscent of the shechinah that resided in the Beit Hamikdosh. By keeping Shabbos, Yaakov was symbolically keeping the entire Torah.

If the negative angel can be transformed into positive energy, we can gain a beautiful insight into Yaakov’s motivation in sending these real angels to Esau. The Tosher Rebbe explains in Avodath Avodah. Yaakov saw the innate greatness in Esau, now buried under the equal evil in Esau, for Hakodosh Boruch Hu creates us all in balance. Yaakov was attempting to arouse the innate goodness, getting Esau to accept that goodness with a symbolic Amen as the “evil angel” would do on Friday night. If Yaakov could influence Esau to do teshuvah and reveal that innate goodness, he could bring the final salvation to the world. Therefore Yaakov addressed him as my master, hinting at the Master Whom we must all serve, and therefore he sent them to the land of Seir, of Esau’s guardian angel. But the plan failed, for Esau refused to even meet with the emissaries. Esau is not even impressed by the real angels, for his desire for physical pleasure is so powerful that he will not subjugate it, writes Rabbi Sternbach in Taam Vodaath. If you cannot control your evil inclinations, yetzer horo, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, you lose all connection to sanctity, even when visited by real angels.

The yetzer horo can tempt one in such a way that he can transform even a mitzvah into a sin, writes Rabbi Schwadron, the Maggid of Yerushalayim. By grabbing a mitzvah at someone else’s expense, either by embarrassing them or by usurping another’s opportunity for example, that very mitzvah is tainted and transforms into negative energy.

Rabbi Eisenberger in Mesilot Bilvavam clarifies a point for us: With regard to Medrashim and Aggadot, one need not take them literally, but one must take the lesson from each perspective. Were the emissaries angels or human? What Yaakov sent were angels, but what Esau perceived was human beings. They represented the mindset of each. By focusing on our mission, we each become emissaries of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, just as angels are His emissaries. One way of becoming God’s angels, writes Rabbi Bunim, is by claiming one mitzvah as our own special mitzvah that we will become passionate about, constantly strive to perfect and to find more opportunities to perform, whether it’s the recitation of a particular brachah, visiting the sick, or providing encouragement to others, for example. Thus he will have created an advocate for himself, an angel to testify and justify his existence.

By examining what is most challenging for us, we can generally find the area of our character that requires our deepest attention and focus on its repair, writes Rabbi Frand in It’s Never Too Little, It’s Never Too Late, It’s Never Enough. We each have the ability to create our own masterpiece of our lives by focusing on our “calling”. Naturally, there will be challenges, but our devotion to this mitzvah will create our malachim, whether they are our children or a stress free erev Shabbos. What it takes is our commitment to do Hashem’s will.

We are not on the level of Yaakov Avinu, but we all have the opportunity to become angels ourselves or to create angels through our commitment to following a path that Hashem set before us to perfect ourselves and do His will.

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