“וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים”
And Yaacov went on his way, and angels of God met him.
[Bereishit (Genesis) 32:2]
ויפגעו בו מלאכי אלהים – מלאכים של ארץ ישראל באו לקראתו ללוותו לארץ:
“And angels of God met him” – the angels of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) came to greet him and escort him to the Land. [Rashi]
What Is Unique About the Angels of the Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel)?
Yaacov’s encounter with the angels is described at the end of Parashat vaYeitzei, while the parasha began with Yaacov’s escape from his brother Esav, and his journey from Eretz Yisrael to the place of Lavan his uncle. As he was about to leave the Land, Yaacov had a prophetic dream, in which he saw a ladder moored on the ground with its head reaching the heavens. Yaacov saw angels ascending to heaven and descending to earth on this ladder. Rashi [posuk (verse) 12] explains that the angels who had accompanied Jacob within Eretz Yisrael ascended to heaven, since they may not leave the Land, while the angels who descended were the angels who accompanied Yaacov outside the Land.
The parasha describes various significant experiences Yaacov had. Chazal (our Sages) [ Gemara (Talmud) Megilla 17a] teach that Yaacov spent fourteen years engaged in Torah study day and night in the study house of Shem and Ever. Chazal [Breishit Rabba 68:11] add that throughout this period, Yaacov never slept through the night, so diligent was his study. Yaacov was the victim of much trickery in the home of Lavan, his mother’s brother, who tried to exploit him, as the posuk indicates: ” זֶה לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ עֲבַדְתִּיךָ אַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בִּשְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּצֹאנֶךָ וַתַּחֲלֵף אֶת מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים ” (“This is twenty years that I have spent in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your animals, and you changed my wages ten times”) [Bereishit 31:41]. Despite this, Yaacov was able to amass great wealth and to establish a large family while in Haran. Even while returning to his father and to Eretz Yisrael, Yaacov feared for his life and the lives of his family, as he prepared to encounter his brother, as described in the following parasha, vaYishlaḥ. Without question, Yaacov was in great need of the angels who accompanied and protected him in Haran, and he remained in need of angelic assistance as he prepared to face his brother as he returned to Eretz Yisrael.
The need to switch angels as Yaacov re-entered the Land seems puzzling. Why could the same angels who protected him during his years outside Eretz Yisrael not protect him upon his return? Why were the angels of Israel not allowed to accompany Jacob abroad and the angels outside Eretz Yisrael not allowed to enter the Land with Yaacov?
First Answer – the Angels of Eretz Yisrael are Angels of Love, While Those of the Lands Outside Eretz Yisrael are Angels of Anger
Shem miShmuel [Parashat vaYishlacḥ, 5678] presents a lengthy explanation of the distinction between the angels of Eretz Yisrael and those outside the Land. The angels of the Land are angels of love, while those outside the Land are angels of anger. This distinction is parallel to the distinction which the Gemara [Sanhedrin 24a] notes between the Torah scholars of Eretz Yisrael and Bavel (Babylonia). The Gemara states:
“אמר רבי אושעיא: מאי דכתיב “ואקח לי שני מקלות לאחד קראתי נועם ולאחד קראתי חובלים” (זכריה יא, ז), נועם אלו ת”ח שבארץ ישראל שמנעימין זה לזה בהלכה, חובלים אלו ת”ח שבבבל שמחבלים זה לזה בהלכה”.
Rabbi Oshaya said: “What is the meaning of the verse ‘And I took for Myself two staffs; one I called Pleasantness (Noam), and one I called Destroyers (Ḥovlim); and I tended the flock.’ [Zachariah 11:7] ‘Noam’ refers to the scholars of the Land of Israel, who treat each other graciously when engaged in halachic debates; ‘ḥovlim’ to the scholars of Bavel (Babylon), who injure each other’s feelings when discussing halacha.”
ופירש רש”י (שם): “מחבלים בלשון עז וחימה מקשין זה לזה, ובני א”י נוחין יחד ומעיינים יחד ומתקן זה את דברי זה והשמועה יוצאה לאור”.
They (the scholars of Bavel) injure each other’s feelings with harsh language and question each other angrily, while the scholars of Israel are gentle with each other and together analyze the halacha, with each correcting the other, and thereby the halacha is clarified.
Thus, the angels of Eretz Yisrael are similar to the scholars of the Land, and they are angels of love, as opposed to the angels outside the Land, who are angels of anger.
Shem miShmuel asks: since the Torah is unitary, how is it that the location can influence her students to be either gentle or harsh with their fellow-students? His answer is that indeed different places convey different spiritual influences. Service of God outside the Land is on the level of “Shun evil” [Tehillim (Psalms) 34:15], of instigating the Good Inclination against the Evil Inclination. In contrast, Divine service in the Land is on the level of “Do good” [ibid.], service of God which is completely filled with love and graciousness. Thus, while living with Lavan, Yaacov’s service of God was on the level of disquiet, while his service of God within the Land was on the level of pleasantness. The angels who accompanied Yaacov assisted him in dealing with the various difficulties which he faced. In the home of the deceitful Lavan, Yaacov needed to overcome the emotional vicissitudes brought about by Lavan’s numerous attempts to cheat him. When facing Esav, who was full of anger and hatred because Yaacov had taken the birthright, Yaacov needed to act in a gentle and subtle manner. Yaacov’s escorting angels assisted him in different ways, based upon the type of difficulty he faced. This is the meaning of the Torah’s description of the replacement of the angels of the Land by those of the lands outside Eretz Yisrael and vice versa.
Second Answer – The Angels Are an Allegory for Divine Supervision
Angels Cannot be Perceived With the Natural Senses
Rambam’s opinion [Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) 2:42] is that angels are not physical manifestations in this world, but are an allegory for spiritual powers, and an expression of Divine Providence over the physical world. Therefore, whenever Scripture refers to “seeing” angels, Rambam explains it as a reference to prophetic vision. Yaacov’s ladder, as well, was only a prophetic vision [ibid. 2:10], as was his encounter and wrestling match with the angel [2:42]. In the case of the encounter with the angel, the prophetic vision was of the angel’s help in the confrontation with the human being whom Yaacov encountered, as the posuk states: “ויותר יעקב לבדו ויאבק איש עמו עד עלות השחר” (“And Yaacov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”) [Bereishit 32:25]. Chazal [Midrash Tanḥuma, Breishit 8] taught that the “man” was the angel of Esav, and Rambam understands this homily to mean that Yaacov did not physically fight an angel, but prophetically saw himself struggling with the angel of Esav.
Based upon Abarbanel’s commentary on Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed), Rambam understood Yaacov’s vision of the ladder not as a personal prophecy, but rather as a message of Divine Providence over his descendants, Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), and of God’s protection of the nation from the four kingdoms who subjugated them [Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Laws of the Basics of Torah) 7:3], or of providence over the four forces which operate in the world [Moreh Nevuchim 2:10], or of His providence over the prophets [ibid. 1:15].
Providence in Eretz Yisrael and Outside the Land
Even if we understand angels to represent Providence, as opposed to being a physical manifestation, it is clear that there is a distinction between God’s providence over His nation within the Land and outside her. This is stated explicitly in the verse: “אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ד’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ד’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה” (“A Land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year”) [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:12]. This is the Torah’s intention: the angels, the spiritual powers of God’s providence within the Land were taken from Yaacov when he left the Land on his journey to Haran and were returned to him when he came back to the Land. Thus, Yaacov did not find respite during the years he spent with Lavan, as he himself said: “הייתי ביום אכלני חורב וקרח בלילה ותדד שנתי מעיני” (“I was (in the field) by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes”) [Genesis 31:40], while upon Yaacov’s return to Eretz Yisrael, the posuk states “ויגר יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו” (“Jacob dwelt in the Land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan”) [ibid. 37:1], which Chazal [Midrash Breishit Rabba 84:1; Targum Yonatan on the posuk] understood (based upon the choice of words) to mean that Yaacov dwelt in tranquility upon his return to the Land.
Anyone with a modicum of insight is able to feel the difference between God’s providence over His nation when they are within the Land versus when they are outside her.
Summary of the Answers
We have seen two reasons for the Torah’s description of the exchange of angels between the Land and outside her.
1) Angels as an actual manifestation – within the Land Yaacov was escorted by angels of love who helped him with grace and pleasantness, while outside the Land he was accompanied by angels of anger who helped him in his struggle to protect himself and his family from the deceit of Lavan.
2) Angels as an allegory for Divine Providence –Within Eretz Yisrael God’s providence over Yaacov was complete, and he therefore dwelt in tranquility, while outside the Land, God’s providence was limited to saving Yaacov from Lavan, but not totally avoiding suffering.
These two explanations explain why the Torah describes the “change of guards” of Yaacov’s angelic escorts between the Land and outside her.
God’s Providence over the Land of Israel in Our Days
In the Passover Haggada we say and sing: “וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם” (“It is this which stood by our fathers and by us, for not just one has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every single generation they rise up against us to destroy us and the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hand”). Throughout the generations we have been pursued and persecuted. It is truly a miracle that we have survived, and today we are privileged to be living the miracle of return to our Land, with the majority of Jews living in Eretz Yisrael. We live in a relatively secure place, with our soldiers protecting us, and most importantly, with God guarding us. The merit of the Eretz Yisrael is crucial in our protection, as Eim haBanim Semeiḥa demonstrates from Biblical verses through Chazals’ teachings.
May it be God’s will that we see eye to eye when the Lord returns to Zion [based upon Isaiah 52:8], and that we be privileged to see with our own eyes God’s special providence as we return to Zion and thereby we will merit the complete redemption, speedily in our days, amen.