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When we talk about Jacob and the angels of God, we usually think of two things: his dream of a ladder or stairway up to Heaven with “angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12) and his nighttime wrestling with a "man," usually interpreted to be an angel. (Genesis 32:25).
It’s worth noting here that the Hebrew for “angels” and the word for “messengers” are the same—malachim. Divine messenger, human messenger, you get the idea. As such, there’s a lot of rich ambiguity in the text that can be explored in this open space. So let us explore.
The two angelic encounters mentioned above are certainly important, but there’s another one that is at least, if not more, key to understanding Jacob’s life and transformation. In Genesis 32, Jacob sets off from his father-in-law Laban’s house after 20 years of work and service. As he and his now-large family began their journey, the Torah tells us,
“Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God encountered him. And when he saw them, Jacob said, ‘this is God’s camp.’” (Genesis 32:2-3)
The verse immediately following reads,
"And Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom." (Genesis 32:4)
In the plain sense, Jacob sent messengers, people, to speak to Esau, to bring him a peace offering in light of the harm Jacob had inflicted on him as a young man—certainly in stealing Esau’s blessing from their father, and possibly in the mercenary exchange of Esau’s birthright for stew. But given the alignment of the verses, perhaps there’s something deeper going on.
The Zohar quotes our first verse - "Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God encountered him,” and continues (1:165b:6):
"Once Laban departed from him, the Divine Presence connected with him, and legions of angels surrounded him...and from these angels he sent messengers to Esau..."
In other words: when Jacob left Laban, the Divine Presence came to him and encircled him with holy servants--the same angels he then sent to Esau.
Jacob didn’t just receive angels, he also gave them.
In order to better understand why this is so important, we need to backtrack a little bit. After Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, he fled for his life, towards his uncle Laban’s home in Haran. On the way, he stopped for the night and
“he had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”
And not just that! God was there too! And in the dream, God spoke, saying,
“I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as [numerous as] the dust of the earth… Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land….” (Genesis 28:12-15)
When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed,
“God is in this place and I did not know!”
It certainly sounds like a life-changing epiphany, doesn’t it? The kind that one might expect would go with a major encounter with the holy, complete with divine blessing and assurances of protection. The kind that might, you know, transform everything?
But it’s immediately apparent that mystical experiences just aren’t enough, here. Jacob’s spirituality is still weak, immature. Everything is still conditional.
“If God is with me,” he says, “and protects me on this journey that I am taking and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I return safely to my father's house ...”
If God does all this stuff exactly as I’m asking for it—OK, okay, fine…. Then, and only then,
“God will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)
Jacob had been granted an exquisite theophany, and he just wanted to know what else he could get. Clearly, after this divine manifestation, he’s still the same guy he was before—the deceiver who really only knows how to take.
Jacob isn’t really that unusual. A lot of us are deeply wrapped up in our personal, individual spiritual feelings—excited about having warm, aesthetic experiences that feel good, and most of us are busy missing the memo.
Certainly, while Jacob is in Haran—after the ladder dream—he’s pretty much the same guy who exploited his brother’s desperate hunger and cunningly deceived his blind, aging father.
When he and Laban discuss his wages, Jacob asks for what certainly seems to be humble remuneration—he will take, he says, only whatever speckled and spotted goats or dark-colored sheep that happen to be in Laban’s flock. But the moment the deal is made, Jacob sets up aggressive, proactive breeding procedures to result in an abundance of strong, sturdy spotted and dark-colored animals, intentionally leaving the feebler animals to his father-in-law’s estate. He’s still the guy who tries to game the system.
Sometimes powerful experiences change us. Sometimes? Not so much.
Sometimes an event might leave a lasting impression but we find that the pull to our routine ways of thinking, our routine habits pull us just too strongly back to the same old ways of being.
Sometimes we just don’t know any other way to be.
And sometimes we might think we’ve changed, but it turns out that we’re just playing out the same old tendencies, manifesting them in different ways—the relationships seem different, but that same fear of intimacy drives the issues each time. Or the problems at work are ultimately about the way we self-sabotage because trying makes us feel vulnerable. Or whatever the issue is—it’s so easy to play out the same reoccurring fears and hurts, again and again, and again in new situations.
Sometimes we need help.
Jacob, aware that Laban’s sons resented the wealth he had amassed, decides to leave his home of twenty years without giving Laban so much as a heads up. He simply collects his family and his stuff and takes off. Once again, his interest is in taking care of himself first and worrying about everybody else’s feelings…well, not so much at all.
But Laban—and this, I believe, is the turning point—doesn’t let him off the hook so easily.
He chases Jacob down, even though it takes a week to catch up to him.
“What did you mean by keeping me in the dark?!” he chastises his son-in-law. “I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre!” (Genesis 31:26-27)
The men talk, and in the end, they come to a restorative understanding and form a pact—“cut a covenant,” literally—together. Something old and deep between them was healed.
Before this, Jacob never really made a connection between his mystical experiences (at least, the one that we know about) and his interpersonal relationships. But after this critical connection with Laban—after someone finally ran after him, saying, “Wait! Hey—you matter to me!”—something begins to shift.
How many times has that happened for you?
How many times have you not even been aware that you’ve been closed and defensive until someone reaches out?
How many times has someone else’s caring engagement helped unstick you when you are stuck?
After this meeting with his father-in-law, Jacob’s understanding of both human and spiritual matters are more sophisticated, and increasingly intertwined. The angels in this second encounter—
“Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘this is God’s camp.’” (Genesis 32:2-3)
—didn’t descend from heaven dramatically, disconnected from his actual real life. Rather, they came through the camp.
His spirituality began to be reflected in his day-to-day reality.
The Zohar tells us that there were angels all around him; there was nowhere to run. Jacob finally began to understand that a life of connection with the divine must touch every aspect of his world—most critically, his relationships.
It wasn’t necessarily a comfortable realization.
Jacob took a real risk in sending angels to his brother. He was hoping to “find favor in [Esau’s] eyes,” (Genesis 32:6) and, perhaps for the first time in his life, he wasn’t sure if he was going to get what he wanted.
Asking for love, asking for connection, is dangerous—and not only because it opens us to rejection.
There is another danger, as well: The possibility that we might actually succeed.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote,
“Trust… involves opening oneself to the possibility of betrayal, hence to a very deep form of harm. It means relaxing the self-protective strategies with which we usually go through life, attaching great importance to actions by the other over which one has little control. It means, then, living with a certain degree of helplessness.”
That’s terrifying. No wonder Jacob spent most of his life bending external reality to retain the upper hand in almost every situation.
No wonder so many of us—consciously or unconsciously—do the same.
And yet, when we reach out— when we say, ‘I am going to loosen my grip on the narrative and embrace the inherent potential for pain or loss that comes with love and connection,’ well. That’s when we begin to become free.
And when we’re more free, there’s more of us available to be of use to others, and to a world that needs us, badly.
When Jacob sent angels—and when Esau sent them back, in welcoming response—Jacob had to deal with intimacy.
He had to become fully present. He had to be there unconditionally, without hiding, relinquishing the emotional disguises on which he had relied for most of his life.
Truly opening ourselves to another means relinquishing control over the outcome. It’s a move from monologue to dialogue, and that can’t be scripted.
That’s what an adult spirituality looks like.
It demands both openness and responsibility, and a valuing of our interpersonal relationships at least as much as we value our connection with the divine.
It’s one thing to understand intellectually that we’re all created in the divine image, and it’s another thing entirely to figure out how to live that fact out in the world.
It’s terrifying, it’s risky, and it demands opening ourselves up to pain and loss.
But that’s how we become the kind of people who can be of service to a world in need of healing.
After Jacob finally understood this, he was finally ready to wrestle with God as an equal, as a partner—and to receive a new name from which an entire people would be created.
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