By Michael Rose
“And Jacob was left alone: and a man (ish) wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:25).
In the words of Nehama Leibowitz, this is a “mystery-shrouded narrative”. Who, or what, was this ish? He is not called an angel (malakh). But he appears to be an other-worldly being. Jacob calls the place Peniel – “for I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:31).
Rashi quotes an explanation given in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah: Shehu saro shel Esav – he was Esau’s “Sar” or “Prince”. Though this is often translated as Esau’s “guardian angel”, the idea of a “Sar” is more ancient. Such beings pervade midrashic/Talmudic folklore, where they appear as a myriad of beings who protect and empower the natural world and its creatures. For example, a story is told in Tractate Pesachim (118a) of how the Prince (Sar) of hail, Yurkami, prepared to save the men cast by Nebuchadnezzar into the fiery furnace; and in Baba Bathra 74b, Rahab, the foul-smelling Prince of the Sea, was involved in the process of God’s creation.
Ordinary angels – malakhim, which also means messengers – move about almost casually in the stories of the patriarchs. At the end of the previous parashah, Vayetzei (Gen 32:2), Jacob meets angels of God – malakhei Elohim. Jacob calls the place Mahanaim – literally, “Two Camps”. Rashi explains that one of the two camps consisted of angels ministering outside Eretz Yisrael who had accompanied Jacob thus far, and the other, angels ministering within Eretz Yisrael who had come to meet him. Our parashah begins with Jacob sending messengers – malakhim – to Esau. These messengers, Rashi comments, were “actually angels” – an idea which Rabbi Louis Jacobs describes as “midrashic fancy”.
In medieval times angels were central in Jewish theology, mysticism and magic. But Moses Maimonides refused to take angels literally. In the “Guide for the Perplexed” he explained them as incorporeal “separate intelligences” as conceived by Aristotle. Biblical descriptions of angels as corporeal beings – flying, winged and so on – were to be understood merely as figures of speech. For Maimonides, the term malakh embraced all natural and psychic forces, such as the elements, or the formative power which produces and shapes the limbs of an embryo. (See the contribution by A. Altmann to the article on “Angels and Angelology” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.)
Angels abound in Kabbalistic literature and are also central to Jewish magic and superstition. It was supposed that the world was densely populated by angels: everything on earth, animate or inanimate, had its “deputy angel” (memuneh) – and the activities of the world were reflections of their acts.
Modern theologians tend to disregard angels entirely, or, like Louis Jacobs, to be uneasy about them. They – and we – prefer to treat angels as expressing poetry or symbolism of the awe and mystery surrounding God – not to be taken literally and, therefore, not posing a problem. The story in our parashah depicts Jacob’s psychological trauma, his struggle with himself: his physical limp the outcome of his mental and spiritual stress.
And yet: can we be so sure that there are no messengers of God, when that seems so well to describe what many of us will have experienced when a person appears out of the blue and changes the course of one’s life?
Michael Rose is a co-founder of New North London Synagogue and a Vice President of Masorti Judaism