How to Define ‘Angels’? Look Among Yourselves


Rabbi Joshua Runyan

"Diplomacy," Henry Kissinger once said, "is the art of restraining power." No one lived that maxim more than Jacob, whom we see at the beginning of this week's Torah portion girding himself for war with his twin brother, Esau.

Jacob's first move, before he strategically splits his camps and sends a peace offering, is to send messengers to both gauge Esau's intentions and initially head off any expected violence. The Torah labels these messengers malachim, using a Hebrew word that could either signal "angels" in the heavenly sense or human emissaries.

Jacob was a skilled practitioner in the art of negotiation, having learned how to beat his father-in-law, Laban, at his own game. He was no less adept in the practice of international relations.

The Midrash records an interesting debate as to whom, or more precisely, what, he chose to be his ambassadors. It begins by identifying them as of "flesh and blood," but then lists the opinions of no less than three authorities who conclude that they could only have been angels.

Hagar, they note, frequently corresponded with angels. Why would we discount the ability of Jacob, who "was the favorite of the house," to do the same?

In dealing with this dispute, the medieval commentator Rashi definitively declares that these messengers were "literally angels." But if the sages of the Midrash couldn't agree, how could he be so sure?

In the narrative of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob, Rashi points out that when the evil brother returns home from the fields exhausted, he was sapped of his strength from a murderous rampage through the countryside. More than 20 years later, it's reasonable to believe that Jacob is understandably afraid of Esau murdering whomever he sends to make the peace.

Only supernatural messengers would do.

This reasoning, however, leaves us with a problem. When the two brothers finally meet and embrace, Jacob offers a portion of his flocks to Esau; the twin, however, initially refuses.

"I pray you," Jacob begs of Esau. "If you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face" of the Almighty.

Rashi translates the exchange as Jacob informing Esau, by way of impressing him, that he had struggled with his brother's guardian angel and won. But if Jacob had earlier sent angels to Esau, why would he be impressed by this detail?

We can conclude that Jacob sent a type of angel that had all the superhuman benefits that would prevent it from being killed, but appeared to Esau as a normal human being.

This provides a lesson for our own lives. When we deal with the world around us, the Torah requires us to use our ability to imbue physical objects with spiritual reality through the performance of mitzvahs. Judaism specifically demands such engagement.

But it's easy to get lost in the process — to literally drown in physicality, to overuse our power. The answer is to dispatch our bodies on the mission, but not our essence. Through it all, we must remain bound to Heavenly truth.

It demands cunning like Jacob, but the Torah tells us that we can be the perfect ambassadors of the Almighty.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of News. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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