Parashat Vayetzei: What Are Angels?
In the Torah, angels figure prominently in Jacob’s life. As he runs away from Esau, he sleeps and dreams. He sees angels climb up and down a ladder. Then after living with Laban, Jacob meets more angels at a place called Machanayim. And later — before meeting Esau — he will have a struggle with another angel.
What are angels? And why do they appear at times of crisis?
The Hebrew word for angel is Malach. It means a messenger. And whether it is Abraham, Jacob, or Joseph, the subject often sees them in human form, and as part of a wider spiritual chain of events. From a logical point of view, angels do not make sense.
How can something be both physical and non-physical, except in a person’s imagination? Yet the idea of an angel plays an important role in conveying values and ideas, in trying to explain the relationship between God and humanity.
We are surrounded by negative and positive forces and messages. How do we differentiate between them? Sometimes it is obvious. At other times, it is not.
How do we differentiate between right and wrong? We cannot depend on God intervening all the time to solve our problems. We have to distinguish ourselves between what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is not. Sometimes we can do this ourselves. But often, we may need some help or inspiration. We should consider angels to be metaphors for ideas and values that can help us see what the right course of action is.
Another way of understanding angels is to see them as reinforcing existing values.
For example, although Abraham had been promised the Land of Israel, he, Isaac, and Jacob had to leave because of famine or war. But angels in the Torah appear when vital characters are leaving or returning to the Land of Israel. Thus, the appearance of these angels emphasizes how important the Land of Israel is to us, even if we live outside it or leave through compulsion or in search of a livelihood.
In this way, too, angels help us see what is really important in our lives and stories.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.