Vayetze: Angels Going Up and Down
This week’s reading (Vayetze) opens with Jacob’s first night on the run from the family he’d betrayed. When the sun had set and he could no longer travel, he lay down to sleep:
He dreamed, and behold! A ladder set up on the earth and its top reached the heavens; and behold! Angels of God were going up and down on it. (Genesis 28:12)
Jacob’s ladder is a beautiful and evocative image, and has been the subject of much interpretation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each element of the narrative is worthy of investigation, but I’m going to focus entirely on the angels.
Any number of commentators have remarked on the unusual order of the angels’ progress. After all, wouldn’t we expect angels to first descend to earth and only then to ascend to their heavenly source? Why, then, does Vayetze have it the other way around in this verse?
To begin with, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word malakhim, which is translated here as “angels”. While that is a common translation, it isn’t necessarily the best one. Malakhim are more accurately described as nameless beings with a particular job to do. (Named angels with ongoing responsibilities and/or qualities don’t appear until after the Babylonian exile.) Usually, a malakh is charged with delivering a message from God, and it’s that context that has given rise to the common translation.
But the Torah also records instances of messengers sent by human beings and carrying the most mundane of messages. And that’s where things get interesting, because these human messengers are also called malakhim.
As a result, there is some ambiguity about the beings on Jacob’s ladder. Are they angels? Humans in the role of angels? Angels in the role of humans? (see, for example in Genesis 18:1-2, in which “men” are the bearers of God’s message to Abraham.) There is no clear answer, and I’m glad that is the case
Ascending and descending
I love this ambiguity because is suggests that we can be agents of the Sacred, whether we know it or not. And I believe that is unquestionably true. Without trying very hard, I can think of any number of people who have served as divine messengers in my life, and I have a feeling I’ve served in this capacity for others–or at least I hope I have.
Consequently, I see these ascending and descending angels differently. I don’t see winged beings (as they are commonly portrayed) but people just like you and me. People who sometimes feel burdened by this role, or overwhelmed, or frightened. People who think that they are inadequate to the task, who deny the call or run from it. People who nevertheless are angels, emissaries of the Sacred.
And that helps me to understand why they (we) first ascend and only then descend. We need some time in “heaven” to restore and empower us, to remind us who we are, and what it is that is in our power to do.
Returning to the Source
We all ascend the ladder in different ways. Some of us ascend through prayer; others through meditation. Some dance the ascent and others sing it. Sometimes, our tears or our laughter carry us up, and sometimes we get there by grace.
And we each experience this heavenly source differently. We may encounter one of the many faces of God, or radiant spaciousness. We may experience a kind of peace that transcends conditions. We may, along with Julian of Norwich, develop a deep inner knowing that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”–even when all we see is turmoil.
There, we are restored and strengthened. And only then are we ready to descend and fulfill the mission with which we have been charged.
A stubborn angel
But I’m a stubborn angel. I like to think that I can do what needs to be done on willpower alone. I like to think that I’m as strong as a rock and tougher than nails. And on the basis of this delusion, I keep going until I no longer have the strength to climb.
I do this in my meditation practice, too. I focus on the aspects of practice that lead toward growth and transformation. And I forget that I need renewal and respite as well. Sometimes, I need to work my insight practice hard. But sometimes, I also need to escape into the heavenly realms that can arise with concentration practice.
Flight attendants give this advice all the time: in the event of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first and only then assist others. Maybe I need a life attendant to remind me of this every morning.
Or maybe, as Vayetze reminds us, all I need to do is remember that even angels need a taste of heaven before they can serve the earth.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to see the messengers of the Divine that surround you, and may you serve as a messenger to others. May you find your Source of strength and sustenance. And may we, together, bring Heaven and Earth together.
Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.