Human Effort and Supernatural Help
In this week’s parsha, our father Yaakov, fresh from his successful escape
from Lavan, prepares to encounter his brother and sworn enemy, Eisav. He
sends malachim to deal with Eisav before he will actually meet with him face
to face. The word malachim signifies two different meanings. One is that it
means agents, messengers, human beings who were sent on a particular mission
to do Yaakov’s bidding. The other meaning is that the world malachim
signifies angels, supernatural messengers of God who were sent to Yaakov to
help him in his fateful encounter with his brother.
Rashi cites both possible interpretations in his commentary. When Rashi does
so, he is teaching us that both interpretations are correct at differing
levels of understanding the verse involved. The message here is that the
encounter with Eisav, in order to be successful from Yaakov’s vantage point
and situation, has to have both human and supernatural help.
Eisav is a formidable foe, physically, militarily, culturally and
intellectually speaking. He cannot be ignored nor wished away. He has
accompanied us from the time of Yaakov till this very day. At times he
threatens our very existence and at times he appears to have a more
benevolent attitude towards us.
Yet at all times he is there, hovering over and around us, and he has never
relinquished any of his demands upon us to either convert, assimilate or
just plain disappear. While it is Yishmael that currently occupies the bulk
of our attention, it would be foolish of us to ignore the continuing
presence of Eisav in our world and affairs.
Yaakov’s strategy is to employ both possibilities of malachim in his
defense. He prepares himself for soothing Eisav by gifts and wealth,
pointing out to Eisav that it is beneficial to him to have Yaakov around and
being productive. He also strengthens himself spiritually in prayer and in
appeal to God to deliver him from Eisav. And finally as a last resort he is
prepared to fight Eisav with his own weapons, the sword and war.
Two of these strategies – gifts to Eisav and war against Eisav – require
human endeavor, talent and sacrifice. They are the representative of the
interpretation of malachim as being human agents and messengers. The third
strategy, prayer and reliance upon heavenly intervention to thwart Eisav’s
evil designs, follows the idea that Yaakov’s malachim were heavenly,
In the long history of our encounter with Eisav we have always relied upon
both interpretations of malachim. Neither interpretation by itself will
suffice to defeat Eisav. Without human endeavor and sacrifice, heavenly aid
is often denied or diminished.
According to the labor is the reward. But it is foolish to believe that a
small and beleaguered people can by itself weather all storms and defeat
Eisav’s intentions solely by its own efforts.
Without the Lord in our help, in vain do we attempt to build our national
home. Thus the double meaning of malachim in this week’s parsha has great
relevance to ourselves and our situation.
Rabbi Berel Wein