Every Man is an Angel
Parshat Vayeshev tells the story of Yosef and his brothers. Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers, a mission that irrevocably changed the course of his life and Jewish history. Yosef had trouble finding his brothers, but on his way met an anonymous character that helped him track them down:
And a man found [Yosef] going astray in the field, and the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” And [Yosef] said, “I am seeking out my brothers. Please tell me where they are shepherding.” And the man said, “They traveled from this [place], for I heard them say ‘Let’s go to Dotan.’” And Yosef went after his brothers and he found them in Dotan. (Bereishit 37:15-17)
Why does the Torah even mention this anecdote? What makes this interaction with an anonymous passerby noteworthy? The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (Parsha 84:14) teaches that this “man” was an angel. At important junctures in life, the midrash teaches, God intervenes by sending angles in order to actualize His plans. This meeting changed the entire course of history. As a result Yosef finds his brothers and they sold him to slavery paving the path for the Egyptian Exile. The Ramban provides an existential perspective on this midrash: “God summoned for him a guide who, unknowingly, brought him into their hands … that this whole story was not for naught, but to let us know that ‘Gods plans prevail’ (Mishlei 19:21)” (Ramban Bereishit 37:15). According to the Ramban, the “angel” was not a metaphysical being but rather an ordinary man, flesh and blood, He is called an angel because of the role he plays unwittingly in the unfolding of the divine plan.
Divine providence, and not coincidence, directs the universe. This insight can lend meaning to all of our life events. If everything in our lives were based on happenstance, we could quickly get lost in frustrating and disheartening thought patterns: “If only I had done…” or “If only … had not happened.” On the other hand, the idea that God is attentive to me and my needs and directs my life events in order to enable me to actualize my potential and realize my purpose in this world helps me integrate life’s challenges and accept them. This outlook obligates us to see life as if reading a story, to search for meaning and ask penetrating questions.
This life outlook raises the following question to each and every one of us: “How many times have I met one of God’s messengers?” Personally, I feel that I have met “an angel of God” at every major juncture in my life. Starting with my aliyah to Israel and finding my soul-mate and place of work, up to the world movement towards internal spirituality, I have been blessed to meet God’s emissaries at every turn.
The Miracle and the Act
Does the belief that our life stories are not dictated by chance, but orchestrated by the hand of God, free us from personal responsibility for our choices? Does raising God’s place in this world come at the expense of man’s place in the world? If so many areas of my life are not dependent on me, and I have no control over the outcome, then who/what am I?
In his book, Seek Peace and Pursue It, Professor Uriel Simon dedicates a chapter to these questions. Professor Simon shows in great detail how the story of Yosef and his brothers demonstrates that “divine providence and retribution not only do not contradict one another, but, in an unbelievable way, support one another” (pg 58). I learned a similar concept from my wife, his daughter, albeit with different terminology. Michal taught me the concept of “the miracle and the action.” In life there are “miracles,” moments in which we experience divine intervention, but without human action the miracle would be void of all meaning. For example, God can make people meet but what happens at the meeting is dependent on us.
Dalia, the mother of the late Dvir Emanuelof zt”l, the first soldier to be killed in Operation Cast Lead, once told me the story of such a meeting. A few months after her son’s tragic death, Dalia was at the concert of Meir Banai. A young boy approached her and began to play. The boy’s parents called after him to come back to “Mom, Dad and Dvir.” Dalia noticed that the couple had a baby, no more than a few months old, whose name, she discerned, was Dvir. Dalia approached the young couple and asked how old the baby was. She quickly realized that the baby had been born just a short time after her son’s untimely death. “Why did you choose the name Dvir?” she continued to prod. The parents explained that they were inspired by the life story of the fallen soldier, Dvir Emanualuf, and so they decided to name their child after him. When Dalia identified herself as the mother of their child’s namesake, they could hardly believe her. The next morning, Shiri, baby Dvir’s mother, wrote Dalia the following message: “God does not just randomly bring people together.” Although it took a miracle to bring them together, it was the choice the parents made to honor the memory of Dvir that made this meeting meaningful.
God challenges us and sends us to a particular juncture, but it is in our hands to choose the appropriate path. God and man are partners in directing reality. In my eyes, God’s involvement in my life emboldens my sense of meaning in my choices and actions, and does not come to undermine it at all.
The issue of the balance between happenstance and providence, between human action and divine intervention, also arises in Yaakov’s life. The difficulties in his life come, for the most part, from circumstances that seem entirely arbitrary: for example, the fact that he left his mother’s womb minutes after his brother, Eisav. As a result of this, he is forced to buy the b’chora (birthright), use deceit to get his father’s blessing leading to his flight from home for twenty years. Just as in the song “For Want of a Nail,” which pins the outbreak of a war on the missing nail in a horseshoe, so it seems that everything happens to Yaakov because of the seemingly trivial fact that he was not born minutes earlier. However, as we saw in Parshat Vayishlach, in the story in which Yaakov wrestled the angel, the struggle is anything but arbitrary; it is tied to his eternal essence, and through it he attains his identity of Yisroel – “for [he] struggled with God and man and [was] able.” (Bereishit 32:29)
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach.
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.
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