Blessings and Omens - Wrestling with Angels
And Yaakov sent angels before him to his brother, Eisav, to the land
Seir, the field of Edom. (32:4)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk zt"l notes that the word "lifanav -
before him," seems unnecessary. From the context, it is obvious that
Eisav lies somewhere ahead of Yaakov as he journeys from Charan, the
home of his father-in-law Lavan, back home. He sends the angels to
Eisav due to his concern over meeting his estranged brother after 34
years, and the anger he may still harbour towards him. Where else
would he send the angels if not "ahead of him?"
The Kotzker's answer brings to mind a story. There once was a simple
couple who had not been blessed with children. They were no longer
young, and had more-or-less despaired at ever seeing an end to their
loneliness. Then someone told them of a holy and pious Rebbe who lived
in a distant village. The Rebbe was known to be a great miracle worker,
and many other childless couples - along with the sick, poor, and
destitute - swore by his blessings.
They gathered together a tidy sum of money, as is the custom when
asking a Rebbe for a blessing (the money is usually distributed to the
poor), and set out on their way. They had never before seen or met a
Chassidic Rebbe, so they were quite surprised when told that it would
likely be a few days before they could receive a private audience. Left
with no choice, they made arrangements to stay in the village, and came
every day to the Rebbe's house where they held a vigil outside his study
in the hope of seeing him.
Finally, after almost a week, their turn came. They were admitted to the
Rebbe's private chamber, and poured out their hearts to the Rebbe,
beseeching him to confer his blessings upon them and promise them a
child. "I can do it for you," the Rebbe said, "but it's not going to be
cheap. I need 150 gold coins."
They had in fact prepared a handsome sum to present to the Rebbe, but
this amount was way out of their ballpark. One hundred and fifty golden
coins represented their entire life's savings - and then some. "But Rebbe,"
she protested, "if we give you everything we have, with what shall we
raise our child? We will gladly donate generously, but we are not rich
people that can afford such an exorbitant sum. Surely the Rebbe can
bless us for a more reasonable amount."
"I told you it wouldn't be cheap," the Rebbe replied calmly. "If it is a
child you desire, this is the price tag. I understand your quandary, but I
remain firm; I can not bless you for even one coin less!"
Here the husband took up the plea. "Rebbe, please understand, we are
simple people. No doubt you have many wealthy and powerful people
that come for your blessings, but we are neither wealthy nor powerful.
We would give anything for a child, but you're asking us to live a life of
poverty in order to receive your blessings? It's not reasonable. What kind
of blessing depends on extracting such an exorbitant sum from simple
people such as us?!"
Fighting boredom, he allowed the husband to finish speaking. "Yes, yes -
so is it going to be 150 coins or not?!"
That was enough. The husband was fed up with the Rebbe's
unreasonable demands. He turned to his wife, "Come on - let's go. Who
needs this Rebbe anyway? Hashem is great enough that He can give us
His blessings without this 'Rebbe' and his golden coins."
As they stormed out, the Rebbe turned to a disciple. "They will be
blessed with a child. At first, they put all their trust in me. A Rebbe can
give a blessing, but a blessing is just a form of prayer. Before seeking
blessings, one must recognize that Hashem is the source of all blessing;
only then can the blessing have its effect. But if they put their trust in
blessings and amulets and other types of segulos, they distance
themselves from Hashem, and are further from being blessed than they
were before. Now that they've put all their faith in the Almighty, I have
no doubt they will be blessed with a child - and they saved themselves
some money to boot."
It is written (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:7), "Ask your father and he will
tell you; your elders, and they will say it to you." Mefarshim
(commentaries) explain that "your Father" refers to Hashem, Avinu she-
ba'shamayim. Before going to "our elders" and asking for their advice and
blessings, you must first beseech your Father from Whom all blessing and
The Kotzker says that the word "lifanav" is related to the term "mi-
lifanav." This second word generally refers to sending someone away
from one's presence, without any specific purpose other than to dismiss
him. Although Yaakov charges his angels with a mission, his primary
objective is just to get rid of them. In his words, Yaakov, "had no use for
their assistance, being that Hashem can save without angels and without
This, by the way, was typical of the Kotzker's approach: Don't look for
shortcuts and complicated segulos and omens; approach Hashem with
simplicity and speak before Him like a child before his father. Yaakov had
no desire to rely on anyone or anything when he was in danger - not
even heavenly angels. He did what needed to be done, sending them and
gracing Eisav with presents, but in his heart he knew his salvation lay
Later in the parsha, Yaakov (in contrast) wrestles with an angel, and after
overcoming him, asks for his blessing. Perhaps metaphorically "wrestling
the angel" represents our desire to "look towards the angels," in
whatever form they take, for help, instead of relying on Hashem. Only
after wrestling with the angel, and overcoming him, does he allow
himself to accept a blessing. In the B'rich Shmei prayer that we recite
when taking out the sefer Torah from the Ark, we say, "Not in any man
do I put my trust, nor on any angel do I rely - rather in G-d of Heaven,
Who is the G-d of truth, Whose Torah is truth... In Him do I trust, and
to His glorious and holy Name do I declare praises."
In our Friday night prayer, Shalom Aleichem, we greet the angels that
accompany every Jew home from shul, and ask them for their blessings.
But only after acknowledging that they are but messengers of, "the King
Who reigns over all kings - the Holy One, Blessed be He."
Have a good Shabbos.
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Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org