Of Ya’akov and angels, and ‘malachim lifanuv’


Parashat Vayishlach begins by telling us that “Ya’akov sent malachim lifanuv (messengers ahead of him) to his brother Eisav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.”

Rashi champions the opinion of the Rabbanan in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (75:4) and explains the word malachim as “actual angels.” According to the midrash, if Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah, and Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, had visions of malachim, all the more so should Ya’akov have had intense contact with them. As such, we should not be surprised that the malachim went so far as to encounter Eisav on Ya’akov’s behalf. 

As is often the case in Torah analysis, the near-universal acceptance of Rashi’s commentary sets the tone of future exegetical discussion. As such, if Rashi did not comment upon a word or a phrase, most meforshim refrain from so doing as well. This is the case concerning the word in our pasuk, lifanuv, even though it appears to be an unnecessary addition.

The Torah could have written, “Ya’akov sent messengers to his brother Eisav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom,” without changing the verse’s essential meaning. Therefore, the presence of lifanuv should have generated a significant number of analyses by classical commentators; yet, as a result of Rashi’s silence, this is not the case.

The Apter Rav (Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel) is one of the few meforshim that spends significant time exploring the meaning of lifanuv. He begins by noting that its inclusion in our pasuk is aino muvan, in the sense that it is not easily understood. Subsequently, he presents a penetrating examination as to why lifanuv is found in our verse:

Ya’akov Avinu is the root and basis of Kenesset Yisrael and all generations that descend from him. [Consequently,] all his actions and endeavors that are written in the Torah, everything he said to Eisav, including his words of reconciliation and appeasement, the submissive stance he adopted toward him, the messengers that he sent, and the precise words he commanded them to say, without question, have ramifications far beyond Ya’akov’s personal and immediate needs, and those of the Twelve Tribes:Ya’akov’s intention was to establish [the correct way of responding to our adversaries] for all future generations to come, up to and including the arrival of the Mashiach.” (Torat Emet, Sefer Bereishit, Parashat Vayishlach)

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At this juncture, the Apter Rav expands upon the essence of Ya’akov’s objective, explaining that the way Ya’akov sent messengers to Eisav, and how he attempted to mollify and reconcile with him through his gift giving, is efficacious for all time (whenever nations will intensify their efforts against us and embitter our lives).

During those periods, the messengers that Ya’akov sent will rise once again on our behalf.

This refers to actual angels: They will placate and silence Eisav and remove all accusers from upon us.

The Apter Rav explains that not only did Ya’akov Avinu model the exact behaviors we should follow to deal with the many Eisavs we would encounter throughout Jewish history, he guaranteed that we will never be alone, as “the messengers [he] sent will rise once again on our behalf:”

Ya’akov charged the angels with the permanent mission to encounter Eisav whenever “he” will desire to wreck misery upon the Jewish people. Ya’akov had this ability, as they [the Jewish people] are ever intertwined with his spiritual power, since all Kenesset Yisrael descends from him.

This is the case even though the Jewish people were not yet extant and only existed in potential, nonetheless, he was able to [protect his future descendants through the agency of the malachim].

This, then, is why the Torah wrote, ‘lifanuv,’ with the connotation of lifnei hadavar hahu (before the matter had come to pass), for even though the Jewish people did not yet exist, Ya’akov provided the us with the refuah to respond, and put an end, to all accusers that would rise against us.

I believe that the Apter Rav’s analysis of lifanuv is an exegetical tour de force that can provide hope and light during the dark moments when our enemies contrive against us. As Ya’akov’s spiritual heirs, we are certain that he will ever watch over us and send forth malachim to protect us. 

May the time come soon, and in our days, when we will no longer have to contend with those who seek our very destruction. For on that day, “Hashem will be one, and His Name one.” (Sefer Zechariah 14:9) V’chane yihi ratzon.