Parashat Vayeitzei, which we read this past Shabbat, begins with the third and last Patriarch of the Jewish nation, Jacob, leaving the Land of Israel: “Jacob went out from Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran” (Genesis 28:10).
On his way towards Haran he overnighted in Beit El: not the city which would later become named Beit El, but rather Jerusalem, and specifically Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, the place on which the Holy Temples would be built centuries later.
It was there that Jacob dreamed his famous dream of “a ladder set earthwards, and its head reaching heavenwards; and behold! – angels of G-d ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
Several Midrashim offer several different expositions on who these angels were and what their tasks were, why they were ascending and descending on this ladder from earth to Heaven and from Heaven to earth.
The Midrash Rabbah, in one paragraph alone, cites some half-a-dozen different interpretations, one of which is: “Those who escorted him in the Land of Israel ascend, and those who escorted him outside the Land descend” (Bereishit Rabbah 68:12).
Of all the interpretations, this is the only one which Rashi cites (commentary to Genesis 28:12), and he adds in some additional details: “First they ascend, then after that they descend. The angels who escorted him in the Land [of Israel] do not leave for outside of the Land, and they ascend to the Firmament; and the angels of outside the Land descended to escort him”.
Rashi writes with telegraphic brevity, and every word of his is significant. When he paraphrases the Midrash or adds any details, he invariably has a reason.
So why does Rashi emphasize here that first they ascend, and after that descend? That is the simple meaning of the Torah’s words, we would have known it anyway – so why does Rashi call our attention to this detail?
And why does he emphasize that the angels of the Land of Israel “ascend to the Firmament”?
Before answering these questions, I throw in a far more obvious question:
Since this changing of the Angelic Guard was the exchanging of the angels of the Land of Israel for the angels of outside the Land, then why did it happen in Jerusalem? Jacob was still deep in the Land of Israel, hundreds of kilometres before reaching the northern border of the Land of Israel. Surely this changing of the guard should have happened at the border?!
I suggest that there is one answer to all these questions:
As soon as a Jew is on his way out of Israel, he already loses the protection of the angels of the Land of Israel. He may still be physically in the Land – but if he is on his way out, he is already as good as gone.
The Jew who leaves Israel loses the protection of the Israeli angels even before reaching Ben Gurion Airport. The Jew who boards the train at the Yitzchak Navon train station in Jerusalem with a one-way ticket to the airport, and an aeroplane ticket in his pocket for America, or France, or anywhere else in the world, already falls under the jurisdiction of the angels of exile.
And by emphasising that first the angels of the Land of Israel ascend and only after that do the angels of outside the Land descend, Rashi tells us that for an undefined amount of time, Jacob was left without any angelic protection.
We don’t know if the interim between the Israeli angels ascending and the exile angels descending was a nanosecond or the entire night – but we do know that however long or short a time it was, Jacob was without his protection for that time.
That’s what happens when a Jew leaves Israel: there will inevitably be an interim during which he has no Divine protection.
And Rashi tells us that the Land-of-Israel-angels ascend לָרָקִיעַ, “to the Firmament”, because he wants us to know that those angels cannot have any connexion with a Jew who is leaving Israel: as far as the Firmament is above the earth, so the Land of Israel is above the rest of the world:
“The Land of Israel is higher than all [other] lands” (Sifri Deuteronomy, Shoftim 152 et al.).
Several times the Tanach speaks of אֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים, the Land of Life or the Land of the Living.
The appellation אֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים can mean the Holy Temple (vide Rashi and Radak on Isaiah 38:11), or more generally Jerusalem (vide Rashi on Ezekiel 26:20), or even more generally the entire Land of Israel (vide Avot de-Rabbi Natan 34:11, Radak and Targum Yonatan on Isaiah 53:8, Targum Yonatan to Jeremiah 11:19, Radak and Targum Yonatan to Ezekiel 26:20, Rashi and Radak to Psalms 116:9, Radak to Psalms 142:6).
The obvious corollary is that the exile, outside of Israel, is the land of the dead.
So when our father Jacob was on his way to leaving Canaan, אֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים, the Land of the Living (or the Land of Life), the angels of the Land of Life who were escorting him left him when he reached Jerusalem, the site of the [future] Holy Temple, and angels of the lands of the dead took over.
Now there are indisputably circumstances which halachically justify a Jew’s leaving the Land of Israel: To save his life when non-Jews are hunting him down to kill him, or to marry a woman, or for business, or to learn Torah (Rambam, Laws of Kings 5:9).
And Jacob’s circumstances fulfilled three of these criteria: his brother Esau was plotting to murder him, he found his wife (well, wives really, but only one of those was planned) and got married in Paddan Aram, and he became wealthy there.
So yes, Jacob was justified in leaving the Land of Israel – but even so, the angels who had escorted him from the beginning of his journey left him when he overnighted in Jerusalem, and they handed over his protection to the angels of exile.
Those were the angels whom he saw in his dream.
And now we jump ahead 20 years, to the final words of Parashat Vayeitzei. Jacob was returning to the Land of his fathers and of his descendants; he had left as a destitute fugitive, and retuned as a wealthy patriarch, head of a large. The Parashah concludes by recording that “Jacob went on his way, and angels of G-d encountered him; and Jacob said when he saw them, This is G-d’s Camp! And he called that place Machanayim [Two-Camps]” (Genesis 32:2-3).
Who were these angels of G-d who encountered him? “The angels of the Land of Israel came towards him to escort him to the Land” (Rashi ad loc.).
Now this comment of Rashi’s, like his earlier comment, is deceptively simple. He seems to base this on a much longer and more detailed Midrashic exposition:
“How many angels were dancing ecstatically before our father Jacob on his entry into Israel? – Rabbi Huna quoted Rabbi Ayevo as saying that six-hundred-thousand angels were dancing before Jacob our father on his entry into Israel. This is the inference of ‘Jacob said when he saw them, This is G-d’s Camp’ – the Shechinah [the Divine Presence] does not rest on less than 600,000. The Rabbis said 1,200,000: ‘he called that place Machanayim [Two-Camps]’, one camp comprises 600,000, and so two camps comprise 1,200,000” (Bereishit Rabbah 74:17).
Rashi, in his commentary, omits everything except what he wants us to focus on: How many angels there were, how many are needed for the Shechinah, how they danced – Rashi doesn’t bother with any of this. All that interests him is that “the angels of the Land of Israel came towards him to escort him to the Land”.
Why is this so important? Evidently because Jacob was still distant from the border of Israel.
As the Ramban (commentary to Genesis 32:2) notes, “Jacob had not yet reached the Land, he was still far away from it, and he sent the angels to Esau [at the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach] from afar; and later it says, ‘He crossed the Jabbok Ford’ (Genesis 32:23), which is ‘the Jabbok River, the border of the sons of Ammon’ (Deuteronomy 3:16), which is south-east of the Land of Israel; so he still had to cross the border of the sons of Ammon and Moab, and after that the land of Edom”.
So why did the angels of the Land of Israel already come to greet Jacob at this distance from the Land? Obviously because a Jew approaching the Land of Israel already comes under the jurisdiction of the angels of the Land when he is yet distant.
The Jew who buys a ticket to Israel and boards the aeroplane in JFK Airport, or Heathrow Airport, or wherever else in exile, and comes home to Israel, already merits the protection and jurisdiction of the angels of the Land of Israel long before the aircraft crosses Israel’s coastline.
How long before is not for us to say. Maybe as soon as he boards the train for JFK Airport, maybe when the aircraft takes off, maybe over the Swiss Alps, maybe over Cyprus, maybe over the Mediterranean Sea – but somewhere out there, even before reaching Israel, the Jew who is on his way home is already escorted by the angels of the Land of Israel.
As the Malbim wrote, “Jacob, because he was on his way to the Holy Land, and because he parted from Lavan and went away from him, achieved such a great spiritual level that the angels of G-d encountered him while he was awake” (commentary to Genesis 32:2).
And the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, notes simply that these angels encountered him, “to protect him, as it is written ‘Behold I am with you and I will protect you’ (Genesis 28:15)” (commentary to Genesis 32:2).
This is how Parashat Vayeitzei concludes: Jacob’s dream of seeing angels came true.
When he left Israel, even though he was thoroughly justified in leaving, he could but dream of angels, whether the angels of Israel or the angels of exile.
And his dream came true at the end of the parashah: approaching the Holy Land, he saw the angels of the Land of Israel with his physical eyes while awake.
Such is the power of a Jew’s returning to his ancestral homeland, the only country in G-d’s world that he can truly call “home”.
It is when making Aliyah to Israel that dreams come true.