Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ya'akov's Messengers

By HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Beit-El

Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham Ben-Tziyon ben Shabtai
1. Dispatching Angels 
2. Something in Common 
3. Imitatio Dei 
4. Individuality and Inclusiveness 

"And Ya'akov sent malachim to his brother Esav to the land of Se'ir in the field of Edom." Our sages deliberated on the question of who these "malachim" exactly were: One view is that they were indeed human agents - namely, messengers, of Ya'akov Avinu. Another view is that they were actual angels. "Rav Hama Bar Chanina said: Hagar was our matriarch Sara's maidservant, and angels appeared to her; is it not all the more logical that angels would appear to Ya'akov, who was the beloved of [God's] house?"

We should, however, take note of a key distinction between the revelation of angels to Hagar, to Eliezer (Avraham's servant), to Yosef, in comparison to their contact with Ya'akov. In the latter case, if we are to read the term malachim literally, from the verse we learn that Ya'akov actually sends the angels on a mission! They adhere to his orders! This type of relationship defies all that we know to be true about what is within man's capabilities, since it is clear that humans are on a lower spiritual level than the celestial angels; if so, how could he order them to carry out his wishes? We have no choice but to conclude that the Torah is telling us that Ya'akov Avinu was on a higher level than the angels! He is able not only to meet them, as did other Biblical personalities, but he was also able to commission them to fulfill his wishes.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (of blessed memory) notes that, in Jewish law, an agent must share his sender's level of obligation to perform Torah mitzvot (commandments) Thus, in Jewish law, a non-Jew is an invalid agent. (This means, for example, that a Jew cannot appoint a non-Jew to light his - the Jew's - Chanukah candles, since a non-Jew is not obligated to observe the holiday.) This criterion is rooted in the principle that an agent stands in the place of the one who sends him: "A person's agent is like himself."

Question: How is it therefore possible that angels could function as the agents of a human being? Angels are not "Children of the covenant!" in any sense of the word! Rabbi Kook's answer: Angels fulfill the Divine will naturally, without having to be commanded. In a similar fashion, our forefathers fulfilled the Torah not because they were commanded to do so, but because the fulfillment of mitzvot emanated from the depth of their very being.

The forefathers thus share something in common with angels - in the sense that both beings are fulfillers of the Divine will; though Ya'akov is human and the angels are not, his nature, too, prompts him, in an angel-like fashion, to perform God's will. This perspective helps us understand how Ya'akov could appoint angels as agents to act on his behalf.

Looking at things this way, we can come to appreciate the spiritual loftiness of the fathers of our nation - people who existed somewhere between the physical and spiritual worlds, out of a complete and natural connection with the word of God, a connection that led them to experience ongoing encounters with the word of God and with his ministering angels.

In this world - as illustrated on numerous occasions in the Torah and Talmud - we find that God gives power to righteous people to resemble their Creator: to stop rains, to revive the dead, etc. Yet, there is a reality that is loftier than that of the world as we know it, a reality that the world will enter in future days, when the world reaches its ultimate state of perfection, when it becomes "filled with the splendor of God." At that time, it will become apparent that the entirety of the physical world is insignificant compared to the reality of God's existence. This is what our tradition means when it says that, on that day, "God will remain alone."

Our sages add that at that time, it will also become apparent that Ya'akov Avinu had a lion's share of this Divine quality. Ya'akov succeeded in raising himself to a level at which the entirety of existence was, so to speak, as naught, relative to him. In other words, Ya'akov strove for and reached the pinnacle of what a person must try to become. The entire world exists by his merit, he therefore possesses the quality of "Ein Od Milvado" -"There is none except for him" - a phrase normally reserved for God Himself.

In the book "Nefesh haRav," Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik is quoted as saying that just as it is incumbent on a person to cleave to the ways of the Creator and His attributes ("Just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate, just as He is merciful, so should you be, etc) similarly, just as God is the One and only unique existence, so should man try to cleave to this quality, and to strive to reach his own personal potential. Every person has unique qualities, a special synthesis of his physical and spiritual self - not present in any other person. Man is obliged to develop the unique side of who he is as an individual, and not to simply defer to others.

An illustration of this concept can be found in a statement of the Vilna Gaon, who taught that after the sealing of the Babylonian Talmud, every "Talmid Chacham," (Torah scholar) has permission to study the Talmud to his heart's content, and should not, in the course of his Torah study, defer to other scholars that preceded him, who lived after the canonization of the Talmud. Thus, according to the Gaon, if a Torah scholar whose learning has led him to a halachic conclusion against that arrived at by the Shulchan Aruch, - and he (the Torah scholar) nevertheless rules in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch on that very issue - he has transgressed a Torah prohibition!

Ya'akov Avinu possesses the quality of "Levado," of being alone - he has a unique personality unlike that of anyone else in the world. We find that the each of our forefathers possessed unique qualities. Avraham specialized in Chesed, in the performance of kind acts towards others; Yitzchak was the master of "Din" - of self-restraint; Ya'akov Avinu was known for his adherence to, and love of truth.

On the other hand, we find a certain inclusivist quality in the patriarchs, of a willingness to negate their own personal egos in their efforts toward building of the Jewish nation, and of perfecting the world as a whole. In fact, our sages point out that of the three patriarchs, Ya'akov is the most inclusivist, most all encompassing of all. If so, then, there is no contradiction between developing one's unique personality and maintaining one's connection and commitment to the nation as a whole. The opposite is in fact, true: the ideal Jew finds his own fulfillment in his ongoing concern for his fellow Jews. One's own unique personality is cultivated and enriched by his concern for others... 

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