Angels are popular, their winged images appearing in art, literature and pop culture. They are other-worldly beings from the heavenly realm, yet we imagine them coming down to earth and interacting with humans. They are one way that the transcendent divine is made immanent, or brought closer to home, in our everyday lives.
The portion Vayetzei opens and closes with angels. Jacob lies down, puts his head on a stone, and dreams of a ladder with "angels of God going up and down on it." The Lord speaks to him in the dream, promising the ground he lies on to him and to his offspring, and when Jacob wakes, he realizes that God is present in this place.
He then leaves this holy land in search of his uncle Laban, and he stays outside the land for many years as he builds his family and wealth. Only when he is on his journey back do angels appear to him again. At the end of the portion, after Laban has said his final goodbye, we read: "Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him." When Jacob sees them, he recognizes the presence of God in that place as well.
The word for "angel" in the biblical text is malach, which translates as "messenger." Rashi's commentary quotes the midrash that envisions these angels as an escort for Jacob. In Jacob's dream, the angels who escort Jacob within the land of Israel go up the ladder, unable to leave Israel, and different angels come down to escort him outside the land. Rashi imagines that the angels who meet him at the end of the portion are once again the land of Israel angels, ready to escort him back.
Have the first angels been with him the whole time, protecting him during his stay outside of Israel? Or can we see these figures in more of a messenger role, their presence indicating to Jacob the holiness of a particular place?
The same word for angels, malachim, appears in the first line of the next portion as well, although this time in its literal, earthly meaning. "Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau." That night, Jacob is visited by an ish, or "man," who wrestles with him and gives him a blessing. This man is often referred to as an angel when discussing this story, although malach is not used.
Are angels messengers, escorts, protectors -- or all of the above? Are they earthly or divine? Seemingly heavenly beings that only appear to Jacob in the presence of God are called messengers, just as earthly messengers are, and someone called by the earthly name of "man" who wrestles with Jacob is understood to be a divine being. The line between heavenly and earthly is blurred here, just as it is for Jacob as he dreams of the connecting ladder, and the messengers going up and down it.
This portion challenges our conception of divine presence or encounter. Is Jacob's encounter with God only in the moments when he sees the angels? Or can we understand those many years of work and struggle to build his family, and find love with Rachel and Leah as the real divine encounter? After all, the angels frame this portion's main drama of family life.
We have learned that even for Jacob, it is not always clear which messengers are divine and which are human. I take this as a sign that we can listen and look for angelic messengers to guide and escort us in our own everyday lives; they may actually be hidden in some earthly messengers we know.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .