Celestial beings, known as “angels,” appear throughout sacred Jewish literature, from Abraham’s three distinguished guests, to the infamous “angel of death” during the Exodus, to the friendly Shabbat hymn Shalom Aleichem welcoming the ministering angels on Friday night.
Even Maimonides, in his book of halacha (law), devotes time to describing various categories of angels and their characteristics.
Unfortunately, we acquire images of little winged cupid-like figures and other such corporeal creatures from childhood tales, paintings, poems or films. While people relate incredible anecdotes of real-life encounters, we may be left wondering: What are angels about in Judaism? Are there different kinds of angels? Do guardian angels exist? Do they come to the aid of humans in need? Do angels follow rules? And how do they influence our lives?
Comprehensive answers, while interesting, are beyond the scope of a short teaching. Here, we will only tiptoe along the surface reading of the parashah, where a famous scene appears in this week’s Torah reading — Yaakov’s dream.
Angels have rules, too
Running away from his murderous brother, Yaakov reaches the border of Israel and experiences a heavenly encounter.
“Yaakov departed from Beer Sheva and went towards Haran… He spent the night… he dreamt, and behold a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to heaven. And behold angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
Based on a subtlety in the above text, commentaries note an unusual rule about angels: Angels that accompany in the land of Israel do not go out of the land, of Israel. The two sets of angels — those who cover the territory of Israel and those who mind the area beyond the Israeli border — are prompted by a simple, but unstated question: Why does the verse state that these angels “ascended” and then “descended”? Surely one would expect the opposite progression.
The “ascending and descending” reflects the consequence of a general law: Angels belonging to the “territory” of Israel do not have permission to stretch beyond its border and must therefore “ascend” to make way for the second group of angels, now “descending,” outside of Israel to accompany him further.
Illegal changing of guards
At the end of the Torah reading, Yaakov returns to the land of Israel with his family after working for 20 years. He again journeys with an entourage of angels: “Yaakov went on his way and angels of God encountered him.” Yet, at this stage, the same commentaries point out that “angels of the land of Israel came (across the border) to meet him in order to escort him into the land of Israel.”
This immediately raises a question: What about the above rule that angels within the land of Israel do not go outside? Various resolutions to this seeming contradiction have been posited throughout the generations.
To protect or to honor?
One approach, given by the Maharal of Prague, is that this was an exception. In his view, the general function of both groups of angels is to provide a form of protection, but a new type of danger (perhaps because of the preciousness of the land) presented itself and extra protection was necessary, one that only the angels belonging to Israel could provide. (The angels outside Israel functioned more like ordinary bodyguards to prevent general damage while the angels of Israel functioned more like agents.)
Other commentaries distinguish between the role of the angels at the onset of Yaakov’s journey — providing protection — and those that came to escort him back into Israel. In the latter case, their function was not to “protect” but to “honor” him. As this pertains to the original rule, since it was the return-trip, the angels of Israel were simply ushering him into Israel and, therefore, were permitted, even obligated, to cross the border and escort him — like dignitaries accompanying an important leader.
Along these lines, one of the more insightful and creative explanations borrows the rationale in Jewish law (to humans) where interestingly, those who have permanently settled in Israel are only allowed to leave the “Holy Land” under certain conditions.
Two general categories are described in the Talmud: 1) Leaving for the purpose of something important abroad: e.g., to attend a better academy of Torah education, to flee from danger, to find a spouse, a better job, etc. Such temporary leaving, with the intent to return, is permissible. 2) Going out to greet an important figure, i.e., one’s father and mother (en route to the land of Israel). This departure, in order to bring someone into the land of Israel is not considered leaving to begin with.
Applying these rules to our story, the ability of the angels to go outside Israel and to greet Yaakov was not a matter of overriding the previous principle. Since it was for the sake of honor (escorting), there was no prohibition to begin with.
Make Israel here
The mystical commentaries provide a dimension by viewing this episode through the lens of the holiness of Israel and the mission of Yaakov and his descendants.
When people move to Israel they are said to “make aliyah” — to be moving upward. A special sense of spirituality courses through the land of Israel. The atmosphere in the Diaspora does not flow with the same feeling, the sense of an underlying holiness. And even in Yaakov’s time there was a difference.
The major accomplishment of Yaakov’s dwelling and laboring for his uncle in Haran (for which he earned the name Israel) was that he remained honest and loyal even in a corrupt and hostile environment. Furthermore, he brought a reflection of the sanctity of the land of Israel into the place where he worked and raised a family.
As such, the angels of Israel crossed the border because Yaakov had built a bridge between two spiritual environments, elevated the land outside to be more like Israel. As a result, the angels not only went to honor him for what he had achieved. Their crossing mirrored his accomplishment.
One of the most difficult challenges is coming from a warm environment filled with friendly faces and entering a hostile environment. When coming from a place filled with inspiration and entering a coarser environment, the previous experience is only a faint memory. The challenge then becomes: How do we bring that atmosphere with us? How do we create that feeling of Israel here?
The deeper message is that, just as Yaakov transferred the holiness of Israel into Haran, the interspersion of the Jews across the world provides us with a similar opportunity. Wherever one chooses to live, even seemingly spiritually remote environments, when one builds a family, has guests at a Shabbat table, becomes involved in a shul, school, and adds to the Jewish community, it is as if he or she is creating the spiritually conducive atmosphere of Israel into that place.