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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parshat Vayishlach

פרשת וישלח

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם

Parshat Va'yishlach:

And Yaakov sent malachim to Esav his brother, to the land of Seir, the plain of Edom.

The word malachim (the plural of malach) is a curious term. The first instance of the word malach is found in Genesis 16:7. Hagar is met by a malach Hashem. Malach is usually translated as 'angel.' The word can also be used to refer to a human who is an emissary or an agent such as we find in Kings I 19:2:

מלכים א פרק יט

(ב) וַתִּשְׁלַח אִיזֶבֶל מַלְאָךְ אֶל אֵלִיָּהוּ לֵאמֹר כֹּה יַעֲשׂוּן אֱלֹהִים וְכֹה יוֹסִפוּן כִּי כָעֵת מָחָר אָשִׂים אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ כְּנֶפֶשׁ אַחַד מֵהֶם:

And Jezebel sent an agent to Elijah saying: Thus will the gods do and thus they will do (even) more, for at this time tomorrow I will place your life as the life of one of them.

I am pretty sure that this latter passage is the first clear instance of the word malach not referring to an angel. I think it is safe to assume that Jezebel was not in command of God's angels!

Every other instance of the word malach in the Torah is clearly referring to an angel of God.

Nonetheless, Rashi here comments that Yaakov sent actual angels to Esav! Rashi's source is the midrash in B'reishit Rabbah where we find two opinions about this matter. One opinion states that Yaakov sent human agents and the other states that he sent actual angels!

Some questions to consider:

    1) From the context in the Torah, what indications do we have for each of these opinions?
    2) According to the opinion that Yaakov sent actual angels: Why would Yaakov have sent actual angels instead of human agents?

Another thing that has crossed my mind is what is the root meaning of the word malach? Upon consideration, the only other word I can see which is related is מלאכה m'lacha.

The word m'lacha is used first to describe the acts that God did to create the universe.  How do you see that word as being related to malach?


11 comments:

  1. First Shel, thanks for the eloquent inspiration to think about these things. Very well written, and thought provoking. Now before I express my own opinions I occasionally do some research. It would seem that the rabbis were somewhat certain that the messengers in question were angels. Following are a couple quotes from the Sefer HaAggadah. They provide a very different take on the nature of Jacob’s message and how Esau experienced it. Later I will add more comments from the rabbis. These are by no means all that should precede our discussion.
    Sefer HaAggadah, Page 49, Items 80 and 81:
    80: “And Jacob sent Angels” (Gen 32:4) . Jacob was given two camps of ministering angels. How many angels are in each camp of God? Two thousand myriads, for it is said, “Gods mounted angels are twice a thousand myriads (Ps. 68:18). They looked like royal troops - some clad in iron armor, some mounted on horses, some seated in wagons. When Esau met those clad in iron armor he asked, “To whom do you belong? They replied, To Jacob.” When he met those mounted on horses he asked, “To whom do you belong?” They replied, “To Jacob” When he met those seated in wagons he asked, “To whom do you belong?” They replied, “To Jacob.” All these questions and answers are implied in Esau’s words, “Who has given you the many encampments of troops that I have encountered?” (Gen 33:8) Note: JV What meanest thou by all this camp which I have met? (Genesis Rabbah 75:11
    81: Who has given you the many encampments of troops that I have encountered?” (Gen 33:8) All that night the ministering angels kept forming themselves into many bands, into many companies. As they attacked Esau’s forces they asked, “To whom do you belong?” When told, “To Esau” they shouted Strike, Strike. Give it to them.” When told, “To Isaac’s son.” They still shouted, “Give it to them.” But when Esau’s forces entreated, ‘We belong to Jacob’s brother.” The ministering angels called out, “Let them be. They are ours.” In the morning Esau asked Jacob, “Who has given you the many encampments of troops that I have encountered?” Jacob replied by asking, “Did they say anything at all to you?” Esau answered (No) but I have been roundly battered by them. [Unaware that the angels had been interceding for him,] Jacob said, but I only sent them to deliver a message. , to find favor in the sight of my lord. (Gen 33:8) And Esau said, “I have had enough of battering [messages]! My brother, let that which thou hast remain thine. (Gen 33:9) Note Genesis Rabbah 75:10; Tanhuma Va-yishlah
    This is just a bit of what the sages say, all of which, I hope, will eventually contextualize our own discussion.

    from Jeff – A beleaguered soul, congenitally unable to resist discussing Torah.

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  2. Well, let's see--melachah, malach; act, agent. I might venture that a malach is one who performs a melachah; an agent performs an act. As Shel has said, a melachah is an act; therefore, a malach is an agent. If a particular melachah is an act of G-d, its malach is an agent of G-d. If I do a melachah, am I an agent of G-d? Somebody stop me, please...

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  3. First off, I have to tell you all that, unfortunately, my computer crashed yesterday! My son, Shmaya, was kind enough to loan me his netbook for a couple of days while mine is being looked over. As such, my response is going to be a limited due to the constraints of a tiny keyboard and the loss of use of my handy digital Jewish library.

    Jeff, indeed, the aggadot you bring clearly side with the opinion that these were actual angels. The Breishit Rabbah 75 citation is the one where you see the other opinion, that these were human emmisaries. That opinion is also taken by the Targum Onkelos, a student of the Tannaim at the time of the destruction.

    It seems to me that there are at least two strong reasons to go with the notion that these were actual angels:

    1) Just a couple verses earlier, at the end of parshat Vayetze, Yaakov encounters malachim on his way back to Canaan. The use of the same word, malachim, immediately after would support the idea that these were also real angels.

    2) I did not find any instance in the Torah itself where the word malach refers to human agents.

    The midrash in BR that you brought also brings down a reasoning that says essentially if Hagar and Eliezer were visited by and aided by angels, certainly Yaakov could/would be, as well!

    The difference, of course, is that Yaakov here is actually using angels for his own purposes and there is a clear implication that he controls them. This contrasts with the other instances of angels appearances where G-d is the one controlling them, so it is not such an obvious thing as the midrash makes out.

    In any event, what interests me here is that, let's say that Yaakov used actual angels as his messengers. Why did he do that? What did he gain by it? Aggadot you bring indicate a possible answer in that angels overwhelmed Esav and thus put Yaakov at an advantage.

    Ironically, then, Yaakov is challenged later in the parsha by a being who we take to be an angel, although he is not called an angel. More food for thought, methinks.

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  4. Anendia--Yes, I believe your comment is correct: The malach is one who does m'lacha.

    Perhaps the verse which tells us that G-d completed his m'lacha on the seventh day thereby implies that G-d alone created the universe--that is, only G-d did the m'lacha and not a malach.

    I hope to get my computer back tomorrow but that is iffy at best. Please bear with me until this problem is solved! Thanks for all your comments!!

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  5. and Jeff--great picture w/your ID :)

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  6. Dr. David Marcus wrote:

    Regarding the relationship of malach to m'lacha, the thought came to me that when God created man, the text reads: Vayomer Elokim na'aseh" first person pleural. Now Rashi says that the angels were concerned with Hashem's decision to create a being having some Godly attributes such as speech and creativity, a being able to make choices, unlike the unitarian mission role of angels, and he claimed that the "we" means that God explained to them his rationale to put them at ease. But creation was done with the Elokim aspect of creating a physical world and the Rabbonim state that the natural world operates through angels. The exception is made when something occurs beyond natural law. The Haggadah states the the death of the first born was done directly by G-d and not by angels. Therefore when G-d spoke and the sequential steps in the creation the the universe came about, it was mediated by angels.

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  7. David, If I understand you correctly, then, you see that m'lacha is an act done in nature. As such, Hashem can and does accomplish those acts through agency, namely via the angels (malachim). This would fit also with Yaakov using the angels for what is ultimately an act within nature, at least in the plain meaning of their agency: to go check out Esav for Yaakov.



    According to

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  8. Gee,

    This stuff is harder to figure out than I thought. Your example of a human messenger is from Jezebel in Kings, not strictly Torah at all, yet you refer to that when you say, “Every other instance of the word malach in the Torah is clearly referring to an angel of God.” Is there a different ‘that’ which refers to a human messenger in the Torah?

    Second, I don’t think Jezebel has less of a right to heavenly messengers than anyone else. What explains your dismissal of her?

    Third, I think that Aggadah is storytelling and not intended to be literal fact. Thus the sages are free to postulate heavenly angels without deciding what to prepare them to eat.

    Fourth, messengers can be both human and angels at the same time. See the example of Avraham who did indeed figure out what to serve the human visitors to his tent who were also angels. (His culinary choices of course lead to other questions.) Or they can be represented by other natural phenomena such as clouds or fire. I wager that I can so multiple explain many examples of malachim in the Torah.

    So my point of view in all these examples is that the exclusive identification of a messenger as being human or object or nature or angel is unnecessary to begin with. Human, angel, etc, are just different ways of looking at the same thing. Torah itself is literature and means to show such multiple points of view.

    OK. Does that just leave the word Malachim itself to explain. If I have time I will, otherwise I’ll move on to your most recent short comment. I just breezed through them so far.

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  9. Also, I don't understand your logic for why

    "It seems to you that there are at least two strong reasons to go with the notion that these were actual angels:

    1) Just a couple verses earlier, at the end of parshat Vayetze, Yaakov encounters malachim on his way back to Canaan. The use of the same word, malachim, immediately after would support the idea that these were also real angels. [why?? what about the same word malchim?]

    2) I did not find any instance in the Torah itself where the word malach refers to human agents.

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  10. Jeff wrote: Your example of a human messenger is from Jezebel in Kings, not strictly Torah at all, yet you refer to that when you say, “Every other instance of the word malach in the Torah is clearly referring to an angel of God.” Is there a different ‘that’ which refers to a human messenger in the Torah?

    Shel: Just take my words as they are. I pointed out that Jezebel's malachim are the first clear instance in Tanach of human malachim. Likewise, I point out that the Torah does not have any clear instances of human malachim. At the time, I didn't have the time to check out the rest of Tanach.

    As far as Jezebel ordering around divine malachim: This seems remote. Generally, malachim do not appear except to those considered tzadikkim in their own right or those who have close association w/tzadikkim. The one exception I can think of is Bilam, which perhaps we'll speak about when we get to Parshat Balak.

    In any event, the only example we see of a human controlling malachim would be this one with Yaakov. That is what is so striking about this interpretation that the malachim were 'real' malachim.

    Jeff wrote: I think that Aggadah is storytelling and not intended to be literal fact. Thus the sages are free to postulate heavenly angels without deciding what to prepare them to eat.

    Shel: I agree that Aggadah is not necessarily to be taken literally. I am not sure why you point this out. I did not introduce Aggadah into the discussion.

    I will also just point out that just because an interpretation is found in Aggadic literature, like the Midrash Rabbah, it is not necessarily 'midrash' per se, but can equally be "p'shat." The controversy over human vs. divine angels can be understood on both sides as p'shat and not aggadah.

    Jeff wrote: "messengers can be both human and angels at the same time. "

    Shel: We see that divine malachim can take human form or various other forms. I don't think we see that humans can take on the angelic forms or forms of fire or clouds.

    Indeed, though, I think that part of the point here is that these malachim which Yaakov sent are not clearly one or the other and that is part of the poetic intrigue.

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  11. Jeff wrote: Also, I don't understand your logic for why

    "It seems to you that there are at least two strong reasons to go with the notion that these were actual angels: etc, etc."

    Shel: Simply this-The first reason I give is contextual. The last reference, just a couple of verses earlier, clearly refers to divine malachim. Without any other indication, it is reasonable to assume that Yaakov's malachim were also divine.

    The second reason is based on the way the term malach is used throughout the Torah (not necessarily the Tanach).

    The argument in favor of the malachim being human would be that we see no other instance anywhere of a human commanding divine malachim. There are other arguments, as well, but I am leaving this discussion now until we have other instances of malachim to deal with.

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