I have long struggled with the idea of angels.
OK, that’s not exactly true. For me, angels fall into the same category as unicorns, magical beings, dragons, and horses that talk (sorry, Mr. Ed).
Despite my skepticism, Judaism is filled with angels, especially in Genesis. Our forefather Jacob had two experiences with angels, twenty years apart.
In the first he was running away from home after tricking his father and enraging his brother Esau, and he saw angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. In the second he was on his way back home, worried about protecting himself and his large family, and he wrestled with an angel from whom he wrested a blessing.
Weirdly, this week’s Torah portion, which includes the second experience, begins with a sentence that can be translated as, “Jacob sent messengers to his brother Esau” but you’d also be correct if you translated it as, “Jacob sent angels to his brother Esau.” (Genesis 32:4)
This enigmatic line begins the story in which Jacob set out to meet with his brother, who 20 years earlier had sworn to kill him. Jacob was clearly frightened of how Esau would greet him, and so prepared an elaborate series of valuable gifts to sweeten the meeting in advance.
But to send angels? Was Jacob blessed with so many angels that he could spare a few for his estranged brother?
According to Jewish tradition, the world is full of angels. There are so many that an ancient midrash claims every blade of grass has an angel bending over it and whispering, “grow, grow” in encouragement.
Although this is reassuring for believers everywhere, it still leaves me wondering about sending angels away. What if they didn’t come back? Life is precarious and capricious enough without giving away something as important as angelic protection.
And I wonder why angels only appeared when he was traveling away from home and back towards home.
Perhaps that’s the answer. The liminal times, between here and there, between home and not-home. Those may be when we most crave protection.
Perhaps the Torah tells these two stories to comfort us, to assure us that whenever we are in transition we are accompanied by angels. It is a comforting thought, as we make our way through a world that is sometimes stunningly beautiful, sometimes absolutely terrifying, and sometimes completely bewildering.
Next week many of us will travel to visit friends and family, or loved ones will travel to us. We send them off with words like, “drive carefully, stay safe, I love you.” May our words and our prayers serve as guardian angels, spreading over them a sukkat shlomecha, a shelter of peace.