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Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

“He set up an altar there, and called it El-Elohei-Yisrael.” (Genesis 33:20)

Parashat Vayishlach describes Jacob’s journey home after twenty years. It unfolds in three dramatic episodes: his preparations for meeting Esau, his brother; the nighttime interlude in which he wrestles with a powerful stranger and receives a new name; and his reconciliation with Esau. Then, finally, Jacob can go home.

The opening verse of the parasha, or portion, appears innocuous, but suggests something significant has happened to Jacob: “Then Jacob sent malachim ahead of him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom” (Gen. 32:4). Some commentators read malachim to mean human messengers, which makes sense in the context of this story. But Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) says malachim means angels. Which begs the question: by what authority does Jacob, a human being, order angels, celestial beings, to do his bidding?

It turns out each angel is created to perform one specific task only. This means an angel’s degree of sanctity is pre-ordained and static. But humans, who have free will, have no limits to their striving for sanctity. A righteous person, therefore, may fairly assign an angel to perform a task (Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach 2:5).

Parashat Vayishlach, then, offers a parable of human possibility. Jacob has outgrown his deceitful self; twenty years of hard work and honest struggle have elevated his measure of righteousness to allow him to, “…have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome” (Gen. 32:29). That same potential for spiritual growth exists within each of us.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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