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Parashat Vayetze

December 3, 2008

Parashat Vayetze begins and ends with Yaakov encountering angels; first in a dream, and then, presumably, in a vision or daydream of some sort.

A commentary in the Etz Chaim Chumash suggests that these encounters serve as bookends, or parentheses, bracketing Yaakov’s 20 years in Laban’s home. I will return to that thought.

But we also know that angels appear for a reason. Sometimes it’s to bring good news, such as telling Sarah she will have a child. But, sometimes, the news isn’t so good, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This second possibility gives a 1968 movie its title – “Where Angels go, Trouble Follows.” In that movie, Rosalind Russell plays an old-fashioned Mother Superior who takes the young nuns and girls of her school on a cross-country trip. It’s a comedy of errors as they have multiple bus mishaps, are forced to stay at a Catholic school for boys and at a dude ranch, end up on location with Milton Berle who plays a flamboyant movie director, and encounter a bunch of menacing Finally they arrive at a California peace rally.

In this parashah, do the angels pave the way for God to speak to Yaakov and reiterate the divine promise, or do they give us a clue that “trouble follows” in the events that lie ahead for Yaakov?.

As modern readers of the text, we have the benefit of knowing what comes next, but what if we were reading this for the first time? We would need to ask ourselves why God needed to promise to protect Yaakov if he weren’t potentially entering hostile territory. Then we’d learn that the 20 years in Haran largely shape the individual that Yaakov becomes. We would read about how he is blessed with children and wealth, and we would also learn that he is the target of deception and endures hardships along the way.

When Yaakov meets the angels at the end of the parashah he names that place “mahanayim,” which, according to Rashi, refers to two “camps” of angels. He says the first angels, those in Yaakov’s dream, came from the Holy Land and were to accompany him during his time with Laban. The second set of angels appears as Yaakov prepares to meet his brother Esau for the first time since he left his parents’ home. Are they closing this chapter of Yaakov’s life, or foretelling more trouble ahead?

Like the old fashioned cliff-hangers in the movies, we have to wait until the next parashah to find out what happens. And then we read, “Va-yishlach Ya’akov mal’achim . . .” I would translate “mal’achim” as “messengers,” individuals that Yaakov sent ahead to Esau to pave the way for their meeting. Rashi, however, insists that these are literally “angels,” just as in his dream. Why would Yaakov send away the angels? According to the Kotzker Rebbe, a Jew in the Holy Land has no need for angels because God is more accessible, so Yaakov sent them to his brother. We might connect the two encounters with angels and surmise that Yaakov and his family aren’t quite ready to live “happily ever after.”

Let’s return to the earlier suggestion that the angels bracket Yaakov’s 20 years in service to Laban. We know that God has been present throughout this time. God takes pity on both Leah and Rachel, blessing them with children. But God is conspicuously absent from Yaakov’s life, not speaking to him directly until Chapter 31, verse 3 where God tells Yaakov to return to the land of his fathers, and reiterates the promise to accompany him. When Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that they must leave, there is no question in his mind that God has been with him all along, and that all he has accomplished is because of God’s blessing.

Whether you see the angels as closed or open brackets, I think this parashah suggests a partnership between God and humanity. Think back to Yaakov’s prayer at the beginning. I don’t see his “If . . . then” as a conditional challenge to God, but as an affirmation of faith and a promise by Yaakov to hold up his end of the bargain.

So it is with us. We are partners with God, and we are God’s “mal’achim,” God’s messengers. Like Yaakov, we have our struggles and our triumphs. We have good days and bad days. We cry out to God in our times of need, but like Yaakov, we must be also mindful of God’s presence in our lives when things are going well. I hope that when Yaakov sent “mal’achim” to Esau that he kept a few for himself, and I pray that we are always surrounded by God’s presence in our lives.


Susan Elkodsi is a rabbinical student at AJR.