By: Rabbi Dr. John Levi, Rabbi Emeritus of
Temple Beth Israel
, Melbourne, Australia
Have you met any aggressive angels recently?
Our patriarch Jacob did. The encounter changed his life and his name and,
forever afterwards, he would walk with a limp.
Angels make frequent appearances in Jewish
tradition. Well, we call them “angels”, but the Hebrew word used most
– can also mean “messengers”. Three “men”
who turn out to be angels tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son. An
angel tells Abraham not to kill Isaac on the altar on Mt Moriah. Jacob dreams
of angels ascending and descending on a stairway that reaches from earth to
heaven. There can be no doubt that in the story of Jacob in this week’s
parashah the Hebrew word
means both a messenger and an
Appearances are apparently deceptive and the
divine messenger who confronts Jacob is also initially described by the Torah
as a “man” (Genesis 32:35). The Midrash decides that this mysterious being, who
cannot tell Jacob his name, must have been the pre-eminent archangel Michael,
and when Jacob weakens in his struggle to cross the ford at Jabok, Raphael –
another high ranking angel – has to be called in to revive the weakening
patriarch. In the early centuries of the biblical tradition angels come and go.
They can neither eat nor drink. They are shy. They talk. They deliver messages.
Some people can see them and others can’t. We welcome them into our homes on
Friday night. We can safely sing about them but, unlike Elijah, we don’t expect
them to materialize or to talk to us because we believe there is only One
The difference between reality and myth can
be hard for sophisticated, practical people to understand. The aboriginal
tribes of Australia speak of their dreamtime during which animals took on their
shape and places discovered their names. Dreamtime is woven into the landscape
and into their destiny. It gives them their sense of place in a timeless land.
We Jews have our own dreamtime and our ancient stories that speak of family
quarrels, sibling rivalry, violence, rape, and the significance of personal and
place names are woven into our earliest memories. To take these stories
literally is to misunderstand their meaning and degrade their intrinsic power.
On Shabbat eve the fourteenth day of May in
the year 1948 the Jewish State was reborn. No one, apart from David ben Gurion
knew what the name of that state would be and there were gasps of surprise when
it was announced. There had been two ancient Jewish states. The larger one was
called Israel and the smaller was Judah. That smaller state, centered around
Jerusalem, gave us the name Jews. The larger, and more powerful, kingdom of
Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 622 BCE and its inhabitants did not
return from their captivity. They were “lost”.
Paradoxically Ben Gurion chose to name the
new Jewish state after those lost tribes. It may well have been due to the fact
that it was only three years after the Shoah and like Jacob, the Jewish People
was deeply wounded. Ben Gurion, who knew his Bible, would have recalled the
struggle with the angel at the ford of Jabok and the declaration: “Your name
shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine
and human, and have prevailed”. In the absence of millions of our martyrs we
still walk with a limp. However, like Jacob, we can say that we have prevailed
and “our life has been preserved”.