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‘City of Angels’ Parashat Vayishlach 5783

What goes around comes around. Jacob had swindled his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and then, with his mother’s guidance, had stolen his blessing from his father, Isaac. While Jacob might have had good reasons and the circumstances were extenuating, Esau is more than irate and he vows to kill his treacherous brother. Jacob flees, at his parents’ behest, to Rebecca’s brother, Laban, who lives in Haran in Mesopotamia. Jacob stays there for twenty years, waiting for Esau to cool off. Eventually, Jacob wears out his welcome in Haran and heads home to face Esau, come what may.

The Portion of Vayishlach begins with Jacob sending messengers to Esau to scout out the lay of the land and to see if he still bears a grudge [Bereishit 32:4]: “Jacob sent messengers (mal’achim) ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Se’ir, the country of Edom”. Jacob instructs his messengers to inform Esau that he has returned from Mesopotamia a wealthy and powerful man such that if the two of them work together there is much money to be made. The messengers return to Jacob and tell him that Esau is on his way to greet him [Bereishit 32:7] “with four hundred men”. So much for burying the hatchet.

Rashi[1] makes a startling comment, asserting that the messengers that Jacob sent to Esau were actual Divine angels (mal’achim mamash). It is clear that Rashi’s innovation is spurred by the Torah’s use of the Hebrew word “mal’achim”, which can mean both “messenger” and “angel”. Rashi’s comment is still undeniably bizarre. Rashi is a self-avowed “Pashtan” – he always prefers to use the most straightforward (peshat) explanation of scripture. There seems no compelling reason to assume that Jacob’s messengers were anything but flesh and blood.

Rashi’s source is found at the end of the previous Portion of Vayetze. As Jacob returns home from Haran, he happens upon a group of angels [Bereishit 32:2-3]: “Jacob went on his way, and angels of G-d (Mal’achei E-lokim) encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is G-d’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahana’im.” These verses are located exactly one verse before Jacob sends “messengers (mal’achim)” to Esau, making it obvious that these mal’achim are the same as the “Mal’achei E-lokim” that Jacob sees on his way home from Haran. Rashi’s explanation is eminently straightforward.

There appears to be a gaping hole in Rashi’s explanation. When Jacob’s messengers return from their mission, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 32:7] “The messengers (ha’mal’achim) returned to Jacob”, using the definite article prefix (heh ha’yedi’a). While the word “mal’achim” means “angels” – i.e. any angels –  the word “ha’mal’achim” means “the angels” and refers to a specific group of angels. “The angels” that returned from Esau were the same angels Jacob had sent to Esau. But, if according to Rashi, the angels of Se’ir were the same ones he met at Mahana’im, then the Torah should have stated that “Jacob sent the angels (ha’mal’achim) – i.e. the same angels we were introduced to in the previous verse –  ahead to his brother Esau”. The fact that the Torah does not use the word “ha’mal’achim” here indicates that these were not the same angels/messengers and could very well have been human ones.

Rashi could respond that there were two different groups of angels. It is almost axiomatic that angels cannot perform more than one mission[2]. Ergo, the angels of Mahana’im could not have performed the additional mission of negotiating with Esau. The problem with this response is that the angels of Mahana’im and the angels of Se’ir had the same mission. What was the mission of the angels of Mahana’im? Jacob was once again on the run, this time from his uncle Laban, who had threatened to kill him for stealing his wealth, his daughters, and his idols. According to the Rashbam[3], the angels of Mahana’im were sent to protect Jacob from his father-in-law. The angels of Se’ir had a similar mission: to protect Jacob from his brother. It is natural to assume that the angels assigned to protect Jacob from Laban would be the same angels assigned to protect him from Esau. Back to square one.

A comment by the Abarbanel[4] can help discriminate between the two missions. How did Jacob know where to find Esau? Esau had moved from Beer Sheba, where he lived when Jacob ran away from home, to the faraway Land of Se’ir. How did Jacob, who did not have access to real-time satellite reconnaissance, know where to send his messengers? And if he did know where Esau lived, why did he not take the safe way out and just try to avoid him? The Abarbanel answers that Jacob had no idea that Esau had left Beer Sheba. In fact, Jacob purposely travelled down a road that he believed would bypass Esau, a road that went through – you guessed it – the Land of Se’ir. The mission of the angels at Mahana’im was to warn Jacob that he had unknowingly entered a minefield, that Esau was just down that road and that a meeting with Esau could no longer be avoided. These angels protected Jacob in a very different way than the ones Jacob sent to Esau. The angels of Mahana’im were in intelligence while the angels of Se’ir  were Special Ops. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] teaches that G-d protects the Jewish People from random misfortune[5]. The two types of angels that protected Jacob serve as archetypes for two different ways in which G-d provides this protection. The first way that G-d protects us – represented by the angels of Mahana’im – is by letting us know that there is a problem. When the engine begins making strange noises, the smart car-owner takes his car to the garage to address the problem before it turns into something more serious, like a blown engine head gasket. Sometimes we don’t like to hear what G-d has to say to us but it is better to hear it from Him than to find out about a problem when it is too late to solve. The second way in which G-d protects us – represented by the angels of Se’ir – is by extricating us from the misfortune we have stumbled upon, by adding a quart of oil and saving our engine before it is too late.

I would like to propose another way of interpreting Rashi’s comment that Jacob sent “actual angels”. The Torah refers to the angels of Mahana’im as “Angels of G-d (Mal’achei E-lokim)”. According to the esoteric Torah, G-d has many names, each one signifying a different Divine Attribute. The name “E-lokim” signifies the Divine Attribute of Justice. Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew word for nature (“ha’teva”) has the identical numerical value (gematriya) as “E-lokim”. Rabbi Shlomo Goren[6] explains that nature does not play favourites. The same physical laws are valid for everyone, everywhere. Nature shows no mercy. It is the quintessence of justice. Rabbi David Spitz[7] once taught us that our visualizing Divine angels as supernatural beings with wings and a halo is incorrect and childish. He asserts that anything that does G-d’s bidding is, by definition, an angel. RAFAEL engineers were angels. Iron Dome intercepted the rockets but it was G-d Who protected us. Immunologists from Pfizer and Moderna who developed COVID-19 vaccines were angels. The vaccines they developed attacked the virus but  it was G-d Who protected us. The messengers that Jacob sent to Esau might have been human beings but they were “actual angels” all the same. As Jacob prepares for battle, he remembers a promise that G-d made to him twenty years earlier under a ladder [Bereishit 28:15]: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go.” Armed with trust, he is now ready to meet his destiny.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Rashi mentions this in his commentary on Bereishit [18:2]. His source is unclear.

[3] Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known by his acronym “Rashbam”, was Rashi’s grandson. He was an even more devout “Pashtan” than his grandfather.

[4] Don Isaac Abarbanel lived in the fifteenth century. He was evicted from Spain and Portugal before moving to Venice. He served as the treasurer to King Alfonso V of Portugal.

[5] Ein mazal l’Yisrael

[6] Rabbi Goren served as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in Israel between 1973 – 1983.

[7] Rabbi Spitz is a contemporary rabbi who lives down the street in Moreshet.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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