What is man’s potential? How high can we reach? Who is on a higher level, a man or an angel?
Our forefather Jacob seems to have a continuing relationship with angels. Last week at the outset of the portion of Vayese, Jacob dreamed about angels moving up and down the ladder suggesting those who accompanied him in the land were leaving him and those angels who would accompany him into exile and remain with him while at the house of Laban were coming down to join him. And as we close last week’s portion, we are told that “angels of G-d met him”. Rashi explains that the angels of Israel came to greet Jacob to escort him into the land.
This week the portion begins with Jacob sending messengers. Rashi tells us that these messengers were literally angels. Jacob is sending these angels messengers to his brother Esav.
We also have the story of Jacob wrestling with an unnamed opponent. Again Rashi comments, “Our Rabbis explained (Gen. Rabbah 77:3, 78:3) that this was the prince (the guardian angel) of Esau”. At dawn the angel begs to leave. Again Rashi informs us that the angel must return to recite his songs of praise. Jacob refuses to release the angel and demands a blessing. And he (the angel) said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have battled with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed." And finally we are told, “And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] "I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved."
One might imagine from all of this that an angel is on a much higher level when compared with a human being of flesh and blood and physical desires. An angel “lives” in “heaven” and serves Hashem faithfully. An angel is completely spiritual and in essence a perfect being. We on the other hand are far from perfect. If faced with an angel would we not melt from their breath?
When an angel in the guise of a man comes to foretell to Tzlalponit and Manoah of the imminent birth of their son who will be Sampson, they offer a sacrifice to Hashem. Imagine their shock when the man ascends to heaven within the flames of the offering. They fall on their faces to the ground and Manoah fears that having seen the angel, they will die.
We all remember the story that the Talmud tells of Moses going up to Heaven to receive the Torah. The angels protested his presence and opposed that the Torah should be given to man. They said that the place of the Torah was in heaven. G-d commanded Moshe to answer the angels. Moshe was afraid they would burn him with their fiery breath, so G-d told Moshe to hold onto the Throne of Glory.
Angels are said to be standing, while people are moving. Angels are one-dimensional: each angel has one specific form of Divine service. The angel who battles Jacob cannot give Jacob his name, because as Rashi explains based on the Midrash, The Angel is saying, we have no permanent name. Our names change, (all) according to the service we are commanded [to do] in the mission upon which we are sent.
Rabbi Abittan once explained that it’s less important where one is on the ladder of life when compared with the direction the person is heading. Frozen in place even at a high level is not nearly as good as someone who rises each day and each year higher and higher.
Only man has the ability to live in this physical and corporeal world and refine and elevate it.
Angels may be able to appreciate the Torah only on a spiritual level. Man on the other hand can appreciate the physical level and elevate it to the spiritual.
Jacob can be Yaakov, but he can also struggle with an angel, defeat him and become Yisrael. Jacob in essence is both man and angel. We see Moses too is called Ish HaElokim. Moses too is somewhat man and angel.
Man has the unique ability through self-control and self-elevation of raising the physical to the spiritual and in reality of rising above an angel and commanding them.
I saw that Rabbi Sholom DovBer once described the feelings he experienced while reciting the daily morning prayers: "When I recite the part of prayer which describes the praise that the angels sing before G‑d, I envy them. But when I read the Shema, the praise that the Jew sings before G‑d, I wonder: 'Where have all the angels gone?'"
I thought about it. We say Shema Yisrael. Who is Yisrael. He is me. He is the Jewish people and he is Jacob rising above to the level of angel. If I can perfect me, then my perfection helps to perfect the people and if I become dedicated to helping the people than I too can rise to the level of my father Jacob.
Our potential is endless.
Rabbi David Bibi