Friday, December 23, 2016

Parashat Vayeshev: Humans and angels

It’s hard to know what was in Jacob’s mind when he sent Joseph to check on his brothers and the flocks, because the Torah tells us explicitly that he was aware of the jealousy and tension between them: “So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.” (Genesis 37:11). It’s even less clear whether Joseph was aware of the risk because he seems rather oblivious to the sensitivity of the situation. In any case he answers his father, “Here I am” and goes off towards an encounter that will be no less pivotal than the binding of Isaac.
Joseph doesn’t find his brothers easily because they aren’t in the Nablus region as expected but rather they are farther from the Hebron Valley, in Dotan. The commentator Rashbam understands this is as a credit to Joseph who does not want to return to his father without completing his task. At precisely the right moment, the right person sees him wandering, asks what he is looking for, and is indeed able to give the correct answer. The coincidence is so amazing that Rashi claims, “It was Gabriel,” an angel. However, Ibn Ezra stubbornly insists on reading the verse, “according to its simple meaning, a passerby.”
But what if there is no disagreement between them? Perhaps the passerby is an angel?
The word מלאך malach in the Bible is a messenger, earthly or heavenly. Jacob saw God’s angels both in his dream of the latter reaching to heaven, and when he began his return home: “Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.” (Genesis 32:2). Two verses later (but in the next parasha) we read: “Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau” (32:4). Here there is no doubt that Jacob has dispatched people, presumably his servants.
Then that night the Ford of Jabbok: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). “A man.” However, at first light, he turned out to be an angel.
Person. Angel. Angel. Person.
How can we tell the difference?
Did Jacob know that he was fighting an angel all night or only at the end?
Did the passerby on the way to Nablus know that he was a divine messenger and understand the role he was playing in carrying out the divine plan?[*]
I don’t know.
Perhaps the message here is that each and every person can serve as an angel or divine messenger, without even being aware of it.
The passerby on the way to Nablus was aware of his environment. He saw Joseph wandering, he approached him, he asked, and he helped. Most likely, he never knew the outcome of his actions.
Every day, in every place many things happen, large and small, mostly small.

Who knows? Perhaps if we direct our attention and respond appropriately we will discover that we, too, are angels.[†]
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* For the argument’s sake, let us assume that a divine plan forward is a good thing, even if the immediate results are undesirable.
† Chuck Brodsky, We Are Each Other’s Angels: “We are each other’s angels, and we meet when it is time. We keep each other going, and we show each other signs.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8w8Iaj9so

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