Two Sets of Angels: Sermon for Parashat Vayetze 2019


This morning, I want to share with you a thought on Jacob’s dream and how it relates to our lives as Jews today as we approach the festival of Hanukkah.

One of the most prevalent traditional rabbinic interpretations of Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder is that Jacob was witnessing a “changing of the guard”. The angels who were assigned to protect him within the land of Israel were leaving him while those who were to protect him outside the land were coming down to take their place by his side.

Jacob was lying on the border of Israel, traveling back to the extended family in Haran in order to escape from the anger of his brother Esau. The interpretation underscores a revolution in Hebrew religion: Jacob’s god was also effective outside of his homeland. While the dominant idea of the time was that one would owe allegiance to the local deity of an area when one was traveling, Jacob was assured that God would protect him wherever he was. This truly was a revolutionary idea.

But, there is another transition that is taking place for Jacob besides a change of location. Jacob left home as a rather self-centered, overly confident individual. He was a man who, quite frankly, did not reflect the ethical life that we would like to associate with our heroes. His action of buying the birthright from his brother was in many ways an act of greed and opportunism. Then, while you can blame his mother, Rebecca, for arranging the ruse that fooled his blind father Isaac into giving him what was rightly Esau’s blessing, Jacob went along with it with apparently no compunctions.

But, Jacob is to change as he travels outside of the land. He becomes more a sensitive to others, able to think outside of himself. He falls in love with Rachel and he adores her. He refrains from taking revenge on his father-in-law Laban when he substitutes Leah on the wedding night but continues to work for him. While he is not immediately transformed to model husband and father, he is certainly moving in that direction and when we read the story, next week of his wrestling match with the angel and his reconciliation with Esau, we see a completely different individual, one with spiritual yearnings and a touch of humility which have become essential parts of his life.

Perhaps then, we can view the angels that descend upon Jacob as those who will be urging him to realize that it is the time in his life for spiritual considerations. At some point in our lives, we all become Jacobs, learning to balance our need for personal advancement, independence, security and survival with the demands for a more spiritual and ethical life.

But, it would be incorrect to describe this change simply as a rejection of a selfish youth and a sign of adulthood. For even adults need to keep that side of self-preservation with them as they grow. And, we will see that in next week’s parasha when we read that Jacob prepared for his reunion with Esau not only with gifts and with moments of prayer but also with preparations to defend himself and his family should Esau attack him. He knows that he must do what is necessary for his survival.

So, it is important to note that the Torah does not say that the ascending angels are leaving the scene and going “up to heaven”. Rather they are staying on the ladder, taking a backseat, or an upper rung, for a while as Jacob focuses on that spiritual aspect of his life. He will always need those other angels, the ones that represent his personal, physical needs but they can be in the background for a while as he contemplates who he is and what he brings to the world.

And, now, let’s turn to the holiday of Hanukkah.

While Hanukkah is a minor holiday in our tradition, it has many distinctions which are remarkable. One of those distinctions is the ability of Hanukkah to change its focus depending on the needs of the moment.  

Because Hanukkah is not a “Torah holiday” and because even traditional Jewish texts debate the reasons for lighting candles for 8 nights, Hanukkah has the unique characteristic among Jewish holidays to be able to change its message to fit the situation in which our people find ourselves.

Let me illustrate this with a story.

When I was a rabbinical school student in Israel, I worked at a wonderful institution called Neve Hanna, a home for children and youth in the city of Kiryat Gat. I was sent by the Jewish Theological Seminary to teach a bar/bat mitzvah class at Neve Hanna. The children all came from secular homes and our program was an attempt to bring spirituality and meaningful traditional rituals into their lives. By the way, this process has continued to this day and Neve Hanna has become a model for how to introduce meaningful Jewish experiences into a generally secular Israeli environment.

On one of my visits during December 40 years ago, I intended to discuss Hanukkah with the 13 year olds. I started by making a reference to the little jug of oil that burned for 8 days.

Are you ready for this? They had never heard the story. They laughed at it and mocked it.

So, I asked them what Hanukkah was about and I got the answer I expected: “the Maccabees”. Then, they jumped from their seats and dramatized, quite graphically, the military victory of the few against the many.

Twelve years after the Six Day War and with parents, older siblings and friends serving in the IDF, this was the story they related to. In their secular upbringing, it had been demonstrated to them, through silence, that there was no place for and no need for the story of the Divine miracle of the lights and any spiritual lesson one might learn from it.

As upsetting as that was to me, it certainly should not have been surprising for it should have been obvious that this was the story that resonated with them. And, my experience as a child should have prepared me for it.

For me, in Hebrew school, in Brookline, Massachusetts in the 1960s, there were no battles to be fought, no clear existential crises of the Jewish people that were shared with 10 year olds. So, our teachers talked much less about the Maccabees and largely as the story of the oil that inspires. They thought that that story would resonate more clearly with the goals of the synagogue and the Hebrew school.

And, what is demonstrated here has been true for two millennia, Jews have allowed Hanukkah to be what we need at any given moment and allowed it to change its entire message to be relevant. Even those who have sadly reduced Hanukkah to a “gift giving holiday” in the spirit of the “holiday season” have allowed it to “morph” into what they feel they and their families need.

So, what will Hanukkah 2019 represent for us?

As we approach the festival of lights, we are witnessing in words and in deeds, a horrifying increase in anti-Semitism, here and throughout the world. Our people are feeling more acutely in so many places the fear that we used to think of as being in the past. For that reason, the story of the Maccabees standing firm and standing strong against increasing threats resonates so much more deeply. In some ways, it seems poised to eclipse the spiritual, moral messages of the holiday which include freedom for all and bringing spiritual light to counteract the darkest days of the year.

That is the sad and scary reality in which we find ourselves as Jews here and around the world. The angels visiting us this Hanukkah may well be the ones that call us out to protect our people at all costs and stand strong, ready to do all we must do for our people’s survival.

This is not the time to analyze or quantify the threat. But, the rise in Anti-Semitism must be acknowledged and confronted.

However, it is imperative that we not let those angels that came down to Jacob get too tar away. We can’t let them retreat back up to the heavens because concern for ethics or an idealistic vision of the world gets in our way. We need them more than ever. Somehow, we need to keep both elements of the Hanukkah story, the protective and the spiritual, active in our lives. While, we must do what we must do to protect our people, I pray that in that fight, we will be joined with well meaning people from other communities who will stand us just as we must stand with those of other communities who are endangered by hate speech and acts of violence. Doing so will reflect the greater meaning of the holiday of Hanukkah as we attempt to bring light to all in the world who live in darkness.

While we commit ourselves to insuring our and our communities’ physical survival we can not turn away from the obligation to bring light, spiritual light, to our lives and to the world. Holding on to both goals is what truly make us mature human beings.

May we resist the temptation to turn this holiday and our entire mission as Jews into one purely of national survival.

 May we also welcome the light of the holiday into our homes and into our hearts and into our souls.

May we invite both sets of angels into our homes this Hanukkah season and always.

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