And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And Jacob said when he saw them: “This is God’s camp.” And he called the place, “Makhanaim.” Genesis 32:2-3
What does it mean to meet an angel? The word “angel” comes from the Greek word for “messenger” and is used to translate the Hebrew word malakh, which bears a similar meaning. To meet an angel, then, means to encounter a messenger, and since we use the word in a religious and spiritual context, an angel is a messenger of God. As we can see in the stories of Jacob, the message that angels bring to us is that there is a spiritual dimension to the choices we make in our lives.
Our ancestor Jacob had an uncanny ability to met angels at the crucial, turning points in his life. Three times in Jacob’s life, an encounter with angels confirms the spiritual dimension of a life-changing decision he has made. The first two appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzey, and the third, in next week’s, Vayishlah.
Jacob’s first encounter with angels takes place after he decides to escape his brother Esau’s anger by fleeing from his home in Beersheva to his mother Rebecca’s birthplace, Haran in Syria. One night on the way, he has a dream in which he envisions a staircase connecting earth to heaven with angels climbing up and descending. There, at a place he called Beth-El, the House of God, Jacob understands his dream-experience as an expression of his hope that God would be with him on his journey.
The second encounter takes place decades later on his return to the Land of Israel from Haran. After making a peace treaty with his father-in-law, Laban, and sharing blessings and best wishes, Jacob is met by a band of angels encamped just outside the Holy Land. Jacob names this meeting place “Makhanaim,” literally meaning “Two Camps”, perhaps referring to the twin encampments of his family and the band of angels. This peaceful encounter reflects Jacob’s state of mind after he has resolved a long series of disputes with Laban and gained Laban’s acceptance of him as his peer.
The third, and perhaps best known encounter, takes place shortly thereafter. Jacob, after hearing that Esau, his brother, was coming to meet him, sets in motion a series of plans that he hopes will appease his brother and protect his family. Remaining by himself on the far side of the Jabbok River, Jacob wrestles all night with a heavenly being. Although he is hurt in the struggle, Jacob does not release his grip on the angel until he obtains the angel’s blessing. Here, the angelic encounter reflects Jacob’s anxiety at what might happen the next day. His spiritual experience was not at all peaceful but confirmed for him that he has become a new man, with a new name, by his life choices.
Each of these meetings takes place after Jacob decides on a course of action. The angels do not materialize to tell him what to do. They only appear as a spiritual confirmation of a significant, life-changing choice he has already made. Angels do not direct him but meet him. He does not depend on angelic guidance, but creates the life conditions which permit him to encounter angels.
This view of angelic encounter is much more empowering than the one we often find in popular discussion. Rather than relying upon angels to guide us, protect us, and sustain us on our earthly journey, we can make the life choices that bring us into contact with heavenly beings. We do not carry our protecting angels with us. Rather, the decisions we make in our lives have a spiritual dimension. By the choices we make, by what we say and do, we can determine whether we will or will not encounter angels.
Life is hard and the serious decisions we make are by their nature not easy ones, so we cannot expect our spiritual life, our encounter with angels, always to be serene. Of course, there will be times when we, like Jacob, may find ourselves making the choices that bring peace to our families and community. At such times, we, too, might feel that we are sharing our homes with angels in a heavenly place. But, on those occasions when we’ve just made important and hard decisions with unpredictable outcomes, we, like Jacob, may spend the entire night wrestling with our angels as we learn to accept the choices we have made.
Jacob’s angels are not gentle guardian spirits that protect him through his life’s adventures. They are powerful spiritual agents who remind him that the choices he makes on earth have deep spiritual significance to his life and to the lives of those he loves. Jacob’s angels are the holy messengers that help us discover the Sacred at the important turning points in our lives. May we, like Jacob, be blessed with the spiritual insight that can only be described as an angelic gift.