Vayishlach: Human Angels

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I’m back.

That’s the message Yaakov proactively imparts to Eisav, the one man who stands between him and the prize – his beloved parents’ home. Their ensuing encounter becomes a classic manual on dealing with adversity and adversaries.

But who were Yaakov’s messengers (malachim)?

A simple and classic debate between Rashi and Ibn Ezra emerges. To Rashi (based on Midrash Rabah), we are dealing with malachim mamash, i.e. Divine emissaries, commonly known as angels, whereas for Ibn Ezra, Yaakov’s malachim were his servants.

Each approach has its challenges. In Biblespeak, an angel is a malach elokim, not a malach – one point for Ibn Ezra! Immediately prior to his Eisav confrontation, the Torah relates Yaakov’s return to Israel and his encounter with angels (malachei elokim). It stands to reason that our verse is merely referencing the same subjects. Counterpoint – Rashi! (1).

One thing seems certain. They can’t both be right: Either we are talking about Divine emissaries or we are not.

Flash ahead a few chapters. On the cusp of Egypt, Yaakov instructs Yosef to go to Shechem and check on the brothers. Yosef gets lost [Bereishis, 37:15-17]:

A man found him going astray in the field. The man asked him, “What are you seeking?” He said, “I am looking for my brothers, tell me please, where are they pasturing?” The man said, “They have traveled on from here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Doson.’ ” Yosef went after his brothers and found them in Doson.

An apparent insignificant detail. Who is this man and why do we care how Yosef got there? In the end, Yosef made it, didn’t he?

On the first issue – another classic dispute: For Rashi, we are talking about an angel (Gavriel) and to Ibn Ezra, the simple meaning indicates an anonymous wayfarer who met Yosef at the right time.

So who’s right?

Ramban [ibid, 37:15] contemplates our issue:

The Torah is informing us that Divine decree is true and man’s industry is worthless. Hashem sent him a guide without his knowledge in order to bring Yosef into their hands. This is the Rabbinic intention when they said that these men were angels – for these events did not occur without purpose.

Why elaborate on the man? Ramban invokes a classic line: hagezeirah emes v’hacharitzus sheker. God’s decrees are truth and there is no way to avoid the Lord’s long reach. And was the messenger human or Divine? For Ramban, the answer, remarkably, is both. A simple and beautiful story hits home:

In New York City, on a cold day in December, a little boy about 10 years old was standing before a shoe store on the roadway, barefooted, peering through the window, and shivering with cold.

A lady approached the boy and said, “My little fellow, why are you looking so earnestly in that window?” “I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes,” was the boy’s reply.

The lady took him by the hand and went into the store and asked the clerk to get half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy. She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel.

He quickly brought them to her. She took the little fellow to the back part of the store and, removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with a towel.

By this time the clerk had returned with the socks. Placing a pair upon the boy’s feet, she purchased him a pair of shoes. She tied up the remaining pairs of socks and gave them to him.

She patted him on the head and said, “No doubt, my little fellow, you feel more comfortable now?” As she turned to go, the astonished lad caught her by the hand, and looking up in her face, with tears his eyes, answered the question with these words:

Are you God’s Wife?”

Our man in Shechem or Yaakov’s messengers might very well have been mortal, but in both cases, were acting celestially – for finely placed human beings become no less Divine messengers than angels. Did the man know he was role playing in the Divine drama that ultimately brings the Jew to Egypt? Maybe. Maybe not. It makes no difference. His complete synchronicity with the Divine plan makes him ipso facto a malach.

Two practical thoughts come to mind.

We dare not kill the messenger. In a remarkable explanation of the Torah’s prohibition against vengeance the Sefer Hachinuch [mitzvah 247] teaches that the one who caused you pain is merely a Divine pawn (even if he does not know it and is surely responsible for his inappropriate behavior). Focus on the message – don’t shoot the messenger. I find this a remarkable tool in dealing with difficult people and in contemplating the frustrations of daily life.

Second. Malachim are built with simple CPU’s (2). Perhaps their inability to multi task stems from their utter focus on the one job that lies before them. At that moment, nothing else matters. Thus, when Yaakov wrestles with the angel and asks for his name, the angel demurs – for my name, which is my essence, changes all the time (3). Today’s charge is different than yesterday’s task which will vary from tomorrow’s mission.

Our immensely complex lives require many foci, but at any given moment, there is only one. Perhaps, it is tucking in our children, learning Tosafos, being an honest employee or a compassionate spouse. They are all callings – imbued with great Divinity. To the extent that we are conscious of and focused on that moment – we become knowing Divine emissaries, malachim mamash.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf. Rabbeinu Bechayei who infers from the fact that the never reports that the malachim set forth on the mission, but merely returned that we are dealing with Divine emissaries. He then presents another proof in the opposite direction. Ultimately, he presents a mystical solution to reconcile both approaches as well.
2. Bereishis Rabah, 50:2
3. cf. Bereishis, 32:30; Rashi, ibid

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.