Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Real Angels

This piece was originally posted in 2009 here. Here it is again with some minor changes.

There is a famous Rashi in Parashat Vayishlach (Chapter 32) on the following verse:
ד וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם
4. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

And here is the Rashi:
ד וישלח יעקב מלאכים—מלאכים ממש.
Jacob sent messengers (Heb. מַלְאָכִים)—they were actual angels (Gen. Rabbah 75:4).

I have always wondered what this Rashi means. 

In the book of Shmuel I (Chapter 23) there is a similar Rashi on the following verse:

כז וּמַלְאָךְ בָּא, אֶל-שָׁאוּל לֵאמֹר: מַהֲרָה וְלֵכָה, כִּי-פָשְׁטוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים עַל-הָאָרֶץ
27. And a messenger came to Saul, saying, "Make haste and go, for the Pelishtim have spread out over the land!"

ומלאך בא אל שאול—מלאך ממש, כדי להציל את דוד.
And a messenger (Heb. מַלְאָךְ) came to Shaul—an actual angel, in order to save David.

As far as I know, (and based on a Bar-Ilan query) these are the only two instances in which Rashi makes the point that malakh is referring to an angel as opposed to a more mundane messenger of the human variety. The context in the book of Shmuel is highly instructive. David has been surrounded by Shaul (who wants to kill David) and his men—his fate is certain, there is no escape.

At the moment when all hope has been lost for David, a messenger comes to Shaul sending him off to defend his nation from an onslaught of their worst enemies, the Pelishtim (perhaps this was also G-d’s way of reminding Shaul who his true enemies really were, i.e. not David).

A sensitive reader knows that the verse could just have easily told us that a man came. The reason for saying a malakh came is clear. David was saved, not by chance, but by divine intervention. The 'messenger' is an 'angel'—this is the text's way of telling us to not view this event as mundane.  As David sings in Tehillim:
ה' אֱ-֭לֹהַי בְּךָ֣ חָסִ֑יתִי    הֽוֹשִׁיעֵ֥נִי מִכָּל־רֹֽ֝דְפַ֗י וְהַצִּילֵֽנִי׃
Hashem, my G-d, I take refuge in you; save me from all those who pursue me and rescue me!
With this in mind, one should consider what Rashi means in Parashat Vayishlach.  Shabbat Shalom!