There are a whole host of events which take place in this week’s parsha. Jacob runs away to his uncle in Haran, encounters angels and God in a dream, falls in love with Rachel, works for 20 years for his uncle, marries Rachel and Leah, has 9 children, and grows his sheep flocks by the hundreds before returning to the land of Canaan. All in one week’s parsha!
The parsha begins with the famous story of Jacob’s dream. The Torah describes the sequence of events as follows:
Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and journeys to Charan. On the way, he encounters “the place” and sleeps there, dreaming of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing and descending on it; G‑d appears and promises that the land upon which he lies will be given to his descendants. In the morning, Jacob raises the stone on which he laid his head as an altar and monument, pledging that it will be made the house of G‑d. (Chabad.org)
The Hebrew word for angel is “Mal-ach”, which means messenger. When we picture angels in our minds, we usually conjure up an image of all white flying beings with lovely wings. Some of us associate angels with “heaven”, some of us with “Charlie’s Angels”, (the TV show from the 80’s with an all female detective team), while others are reminded of the idea of a guardian angel.
In the Jewish tradition, angels appear as bearers of good and bad news, and are at times are disguised as humans. On Friday nights, we are accompanied home by angels from the synagogue, and at our Shabbat tables we welcome them with the “Shalom Aleichem” song. And at night, when we recite the bedtime Shema prayer, we ask the angels to protect and accompany us through the unknown of the night.
At the beginning of the parsha, Jacob is headed toward Charan. He is at the lowest point in his life, when he is penniless, running away from his brother, and homeless. And then he has an encounter with God. In Jacob’s dream, angels are going both up and down a ladder, whose top reaches to the heavens. Jacob is relieved when he sees that God is there for him, and he will be protected by guardian angles.
But why must the angels go both up and down? Wouldn’t a set of angels rising up be a more powerful symbol of God’s protection? One answer given is that the movement of the angels both up and down the ladder is meant to be a lesson about life. Even as he receives the blessing of a lifetime, (that God will bless Jacob with many descendants and inherit a great land,) Jacob still needs to recognize that there will both “ups and downs” along the way. He had already experienced the bitter disappointments in his relationships with his parents and his brother; and he was about to face further disappointment along the way. But the angels are teaching Jacob that on his path to becoming a leader, there are always hardships and challenges. Having God’s divine blessing doesn’t insulate you from challenges, and being a leader means you must be able to cope with challenges.
In the end, the ups and downs of the angels accurately predict Jacob’s future. But it is after all of these challenges, which include marrying 2 wives, 12 children, as well as the predictable jealousies and unexpected battles along the way, that Jacob is ready to become a leader and return to Canaan. And when he does return from his trip to Charan at the end of the parsha, Jacob meets the same angels once again. 20 years have passed, and Jacob has grown up. The verse pointedly says that on his return, Jacob is going “ledarko” – on his way. This implies that he is taking more than a geographical trip; he is now a man on a mission. With all of the ups and downs, with all of the challenges he has faced, Jacob now understands that he must remain resolute, both in success and in failure. Jacob is now able to find his own way, equipped with a greater knowledge of his mission from God, a greater belief in God, and with knowing that there will always be angels accompanying him along the way.