As Va-yetzei opens, our patriarch Jacob leaves his home in Beer-sheba, and heads to Paddan-aram to seek a wife from among the women of his mother’s clan. By doing so, Jacob is following his mother’s God-given wisdom about his future, while also escaping the vengeful designs of his angry older brother.
On the way he stops to rest for the night. Then:
He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth…I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go…” (Genesis 28)
Apparently, Jacob was at the gate between Heaven and Earth. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, Jacob “finds himself in what the anthropologist Victor Turner called liminal space – the space between – between the home he is escaping from and the destination he has not yet reached, between the known danger of his brother Esau….” and the unknown of his future.
Like our patriarch Jacob, we find ourselves in liminal space whenever we make a change, be it a bold leap forward, a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other plodding, or a push we didn’t want. Whether it is going away to school for the first time, going back to school after a long hiatus, moving to a new city, becoming a parent, changing workplace or career, taking on a new leadership role, taking on the mantle of grandparenthood, or anything else…we’re able to do it, in part, because those with whom we are in relationship are helping to make it happen.
That’s what the angels in Jacob’s ladder are about. God’s emissaries, angels are awake to the present moment. The Hebrew “bo” in the verse above [malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo] can be read as either “on it” or “on him,” or “against him,” or even “because of him.” As they ascend and descend, these angels are closely tied to Jacob. They are energy, spirit, and action. With every change in our lives that we make, angels are present. These are the moments in which we are encouraged, nurtured, supported, mentored, advocated for– or not. These moments build up over time and over relationship. This is why our actions and the actions of those around us can either bring us closer to the Divine Presence, or take us further away from it.
Let’s return, for a moment, to Jacob’s mother Rebekah and her God-given knowledge and guidance. Where would the Jewish people be without it? Where would each one of us be without the everyday acts of those who care for and watch over us – our angels?
Written for and presented at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in Los Angeles, California.