Parshat Vayishlach opens on a tense and dramatic note. Yaakov, fearing the impending confrontation with his older brother, Esav, wishes to understand his true intentions. He dispatches a scouting party to gather some intelligence on Esav’s movements, as it says, “Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom” (Bereshit 32:4). When the angels return to Yaakov, they relate their findings and inform him that indeed, Esav “is coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him” (Ibid., 34:7). Upon hearing this news, “Yaakov became frightened and was distressed” (Ibid., 32: 8). In his Commentary on Bereshit, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks a logical question on Yaakov’s reaction to hearing this news from the very mouths of angels. Asks the Rav, “If Yaakov’s entourage included angels ready to take orders, why was Yaakov so fearful of Esav? The Book of Kings describes how one angel destroyed 180,000 of Sennacherib’s army; why was Yaakov so concerned about an army of only 400?”
According to the Rav, supernatural aid is never provided unless first, human beings pursue every course of action possible in order to help themselves. In other words, “No miracles occur until all natural means are exhausted. The angels would not give assistance as long as Yaakov could handle the situation.” Of course, Yaakov believed he could handle the situation. He divided his camp, sent tributary gifts, and did everything he could to prepare for an armed conflict and save his family. The question then becomes, “Why did Yaakov send angels at all?” What benefit could they add? According to the Rav, Yaakov was not tasking the angels with any supernatural mission. He was not hoping for any divine salvation. Rather, “Yaakov thought it was impossible for a son of Yitzchak and a grandson of Avraham to be spiritually insensitive; that Esav’s road to repentance could not be entirely blocked. Angels were a common sight in Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s homes (Rashi, 19:1). Yaakov hoped that the sight of angels might awaken a feeling of longing in Esav, of nostalgia and contrition.” In other words, the angels were sent in order to help Esav reconnect with his spiritual roots and do teshuva. True, Yaakov may have viewed them as a type of “spiritual insurance” – that after he did all he could do, perhaps the angels could help in that case. Yet, more significantly, Yaakov was concerned for the spiritual welfare of his brother. Yaakov knew that if Esav could merely catch a passing glimpse of the angels, whatever war-like, angry aggression he felt towards his brother would pass away, and his desire repent, relent and reconcile would be more likely. So, the angels were not sent to save Yaakov, they were, in effect, sent to save Esav.
This Shabbat, let us consider those things in our lives which call us back to remembering what’s truly essential about who we are and what’s most important in our lives. Often times, we get so swept up in our emotions, that our better judgment gets clouded. Instead of being carried away by the moment, by the anger and frustration, by feuds and silent-treatments, what if, instead, we saw those “angels” which signaled to us what it is we really care about and love. What if, in the midst of heightened emotion, we caught a glimpse of the love of family and friends, a glimpse of the love of Torah and the values of Judaism we know to be true. How would that change our responses towards those with whom we are challenged by? How would finding our spiritual centers alter our interactions? Perhaps it would soften our stances. Perhaps it would open our hearts. Perhaps, it would enable us to miraculously embrace one another – as Esav did to Yaakov, as Yaakov did to Esav, and finally reconcile.