Vayishlach: When dreams come true

Returning to the land of Israel, Yaakov's dream came true.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism site of Jacob's dream in Beit El
site of Jacob's dream in Beit El

Parashat Vayishlach opens with our father Ya’akov’s return home to his Land, Canaan, the Land which would later be named for him, the Land of Israel:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, “And Ya’akov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the Field of Edom; and he commanded them, saying: Thus shall you say to my master, to Esau...” (Genesis 32:4).

The Hebrew word מַלְאָכִים literally means “messengers”, though it generally refers to angels. Though we have translated it here as “angels” – “Ya’akov sent angels ahead of him” – it could also mean “messengers”, as in human messengers – “Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him”.

The Midrash addresses this: “These מַלְאָכִים were flesh-and-blood messengers; the Rabbis say that they were literally angels” (Bereishit Rabbah 75:4).

The Etz Yosef (commentary on the Midrash written by Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, 19th century Poland) explains both of these positions:

The Etz Yosef notes that the opinion that “they were flesh-and-blood messengers” follows the Targum (both Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan), which translate the Hebrew מַלְאָכִים into the Aramaic word אִזְגַדִין, “messengers”. And the Etz Yosef posits: The Torah says that Ya’akov “commanded them”! And surely, he could not command angels!

And the opinion that “they were literally angels” relies on the fact that the immediately preceding verses record that “Ya’akov went on his way, and angels of G-d encountered him. And Ya’akov said, when he saw them: This is a camp of G-d!” (Genesis 32:2-3).

Since the מַלְאָכִים in these verses are clearly angels, it follows that the מַלְאָכִים in the next verse are also angels: Ya’akov sent the same angels who had encountered him in the previous verse.

The Midrash continues by citing three further observations:

“Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said: Hagar was Sarai’s maidservant, yet five angels were sent to her [1]; how much more so to [Ya’akov, who was] the most beloved of the House!”.

Note that Rabbi Hama bar Hanina refers to Hagar as “Sarai’s maidservant”, not “Sarah’s maidservant”. Being appointed Sarah’s maidservant after she became Sarah is a singular honour; but Hagar was her maidservant when she was still Sarai – a far lowlier position.

And the second observation:

“If Eliezer, who was but a servant of the House, was accompanied by a few angels, then how much more so [Ya’akov, who was] the most beloved of the House!”.

And the third observation:

“Rabbi Yossi said: Joseph was among the youngest of the founders of the Tribes, and three angels accompanied him, as it says ‘a man [an angel in the form a man] found him’ (Genesis 37:15), ‘and the [angel in the form of a] man asked him’ (ibid.), ‘and the [angel in the form of a] man said to him’ (v. 17); how much more so to [Ya’akov, who was] the father of them all!”.

So these Midrashic opinions clearly argue that the מַלְאָכִים whom Ya’akov commanded to go on their mission were angels. And this being the case, the question remains: How, indeed, could Ya’akov command angels?

Another Midrash provides an answer:

“Said Rabbi Yitzchak:... The tzaddikim [righteous people] are greater even than the ministering angels; indeed Ya’akov seized one of the greatest angels and cast him down, as it says ‘and a man [meaning an angel in the form of a man] wrestled with him’ (Genesis 32:25). And when he needed to, he seized camps of angels and sent them on his mission to Esau, as it says ‘And Ya’akov sent angels ahead of him’” (Tanchuma, Vayishlach 2).

So the general consensus is that Ya’akov indeed sent angels on a mission; he commanded angels to do his bidding!

True, the Ibn Ezra and the Radak (commentary to Genesis 32:4) follow the minority opinion in the Midrash and understand מַלְאָכִים in this context to mean human messengers.

However Rashi, “the father of the commentators” as he is popularly known, follows the general Midrashic consensus, and explains the word מַלְאָכִים to mean angels.

To understand the full import, we have to understand just who these angels were. And to understand this, we have to go back and see the two previous occasions when Ya’akov encountered angels.

The first time was when he was on his way out of Canaan, fleeing his brother Esau’s murderous wrath, and he overnighted in the place which would later became the place of the Holy Temple [2]:

“And Ya’akov went out from Beer Sheva, going to Haran; when he encountered the place he slept there, because the sun had set... And he dreamed, and behold! – a ladder set earthwards, its head reaching heavenwards. And behold! – angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:10-12).

Who were these angels?

– Different Midrashim offer different insights, but Rashi, who expounds on the simple, plain meaning of the text, cites and paraphrases just one of several explanations which are cited in Bereishit Rabbah 68:12:

“‘Ascending and descending’ – ascending first, and after that descending. The angels who escorted him in the Land [of Israel] do not leave for outside the Land [of Israel], so they ascended to Heaven; and the angels of outside the Land [of Israel] descended to escort him”.

This means that for an indeterminate length of time, Ya’akov was left without his angelic escort, unguarded, unprotected, vulnerable while he slept. Maybe several hours, maybe an infinitesimal fraction of a moment – but there was a time when he had no angels to protect him.

Even though Ya’akov was eminently justified in leaving the Holy Land, even though G-d Himself ratified his parents’ directive to go to his uncle Lavan in Haran – nevertheless, when leaving the Land of Israel he forfeited Heavenly protection, if only for a brief time.

More than this: at the time, he was in Jerusalem, still deep in the heart of the Land of Israel. Why, then, did the angels of Land of Israel leave him, and the angels of exile join him here?

– Apparently because a Jew who is on his way out of Israel has already descended to a lower level. Even though he was still physically in the Land, the fact that he was on his way out was enough to make him unworthy of being escorted by the angels of the Land of Israel.

And the corollary comes at the end of Parashat Vayeitzei, as Ya’akov and Lavan parted ways for the final time, and Ya’akov encountered angels for the second time:

“And Lavan returned to his place, and Ya’akov went on his way, and angels of G-d encountered him” (Genesis 32:1-2).

Rashi, paraphrasing Bereishit Rabbah 75:17, comments: “The angels of the Land of Israel came towards him to escort him to the Land”.

Ya’akov was yet some distance outside of the Land of Israel, yet the angels of the Land of Israel already came to greet him and to escort him home. Even though he was not yet in Israel, the fact that he was on his way to the Land made him worthy of being escorted by the angels of the Land.

On his way out of Israel, Ya’akov was but a passive observer of the angels; on his way back to Israel, he not only actively interacted with the angels – he could even give them orders!

And when Ya’akov was leaving Israel, he could but dream of seeing angels. An inspiring and inspired dream, for sure – but nonetheless a dream.

On his way back home, returning to the Land of Israel, his dream of decades earlier could come true. He could at last see the angels, not merely in a dream, not in a prophetic vision, but with his own two physical eyes while he was fully awake and conscious.

Such is the difference between a Jew who is leaving Israel – however justified his leaving may objectively be – and a Jew who is approaching Israel.


[1] In Bereishit Rabbah 45:7, Rabbi Hama bar Hanina notes that five angels appeared to Hagar when she fled from Sarai her mistress into the desert: [1] “An angel of Hashem found her at the spring of water” (Genesis 16:7); [2] “And he said: Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, from where are you coming and to where are you going?” (v. 8); [3] “And an angel of Hashem said to her: Return to Sarai your mistress” (v. 9); [4] “And an angel of Hashem said to her: I will greatly increase your offspring” (v. 10); [5] “And an angel of Hashem said to her: Behold, you are pregnant, and you will give birth to a son” (v. 11).

[2] The Hebrew phrase וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם, “when he encountered the place”, the place and not merely a place, suggests a known place, an important place. Ya’akov’s subsequent exclamation, “How awesome this place is! This is none other than the House of G-d, and this is the Gate of Heaven” (Genesis 28:17), suggests that this was indeed the site on which the Holy Temple would one day be built (following Hullin 91b et al.). Ya’akov subsequently named the place Beit El, the House of G-d; this is, therefore, not the same site as the town which would in later history be called Beit El, some 16 km (10 miles) due north of Jerusalem, in the territory of the Tribe of Benjamin (very close to the present-day town of Beit El).