I've never thought much about mal'achim (literally, angels), and I wonder if Jacob had thought about them either before the encounter that took place when he departed the Land of Israel in flight from his brother's wrath. Jacob might have heard family stories about the divine messengers who announced the upcoming birth of his father to his grandparents. It would not be surprising if he knew about the heavenly beings who rescued his distant cousin Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah. I doubt that his father talked much about his near-death experience on Mount Moriah. Had it not been for an angel's intervention just in time to stop Abraham from using the knife, there would have been no Jacob, no continuing Covenant, no birthright to purchase from Esau, and no blessing to steal from him. Jacob must have heard enough about angels to recognize as "angels of God" the beings whom he saw going up and down the ladder in his dream at the start of his journey (and of our parashah), and to recognize them again when "angels of God" encountered him at the conclusion of his journey (and also, again, of our parashah). Jacob knew immediately that they were messengers who belonged to God somehow—and, thanks to them, he knew that he was, too.
When I did think about angels, the occasion was usually an encounter at an art museum with paintings depicting Christian scenes such as the Annunciation, or pop culture images of white, winged beings playing harps or shooting love arrows. Mal'achim always seemed benign presences who bore good tidings, and certainly seem that way as Jacob takes his leave from one adversary—Laban—and prepares to meet another—Esau. Rashi believes that one set of angels accompanied and protected Jacob when he was in the Land of Israel, and another set outside the Land. Bereishit Rabbah offers this encouraging midrash:
"And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him" (Gen. 32:2). How many angels preceded our father Jacob when he entered the Land? R. Huna said in R. Aibu's name: 60 myriads. Thus it says, "And Jacob said when he saw them: this is God's camp" (32:3), and the Shekhinah does not rest upon less than 60 myriads. The Rabbis said: 120 myriads, [for the Torah says,] "And he called that place Mahanaim" [meaning two camps (i.e., twice 60)]. R. Yudan said: He took of both camps and sent them as messengers before him, as it says, "And Jacob sent messengers" (Gen. 32:4).
But the Rabbis were not so sure about the intentions of other heavenly agents on other occasions. Indeed, as Solomon Schechter noted in his classic study Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), our Sages saw a certain rivalry between human beings and the angels; worse, angels threatened the very existence of humanity by arguing the case for the prosecution before God when human creatures were on trial and rejecting the mitigating circumstances offered in our defense. The angels wanted strict justice enforced, untempered by God's mercy. They objected to forgiveness of sin because the sinner had repented.
"Apparently, the world is so constituted that man should be a hybrid of angel and beast with the possibility of sin, which spells death, and that of conquering sin, which means life," Schechter writes in explanation of the Rabbis' view of the matter. God had created the angels (along with other heavenly beings) on the second day of Creation, and the beasts after that. Dissatisfied with both, desiring a kind of being that was neither angel nor beast, God created Adam and Eve. This is striking: "angels have no Evil Yezer [urge] and are thus spared from jealousy, covetousness, lust, and other passions." No wonder the mal'achim have neither sympathy nor empathy for human beings. They cannot feel. They cannot fail. They do not eat, and so never fear starvation or hoard grain. They do not sleep, and so never lose sleep from anxiety or commit error out of weariness. Angels obey without the slightest thought of not obeying (or any other thought). They are messengers, pure and simple, who never fail to deliver the message for which they are sent. We humans are not like that.
The Rabbis felt the need to appeal directly to God for protection against the divine messengers—and to make the case before God and humanity that the two Covenantal partners had more in common with one another than either did with the angels. "God loves Israel more than the angels," Schechter summarizes. "Israel's prayer being [sic] more acceptable to him than the song of the angels, whilst the righteous in Israel are in closer contact with the Deity than the angels, and are consulted by them as to 'what God hath wrought.'" God clothes the naked, and so do we. God raises up those who are bowed down, and so do we. God is merciful, and we too can show mercy. It is precisely our knowledge from the inside of good and evil that distinguishes us from angels, who are beyond good and evil—and so are incapable of formulating plans, making decisions, exercising judgment, or showing mercy. Those attributes—including conscience—are reserved for God and His partners on earth.
Jacob may or may not have felt comfort at the sight of the angels going up and down the ladder. But he surely breathed a sign of relief that "the Lord was standing beside him on the ladder." He awoke and said—with wonder and thanksgiving—"surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" Think of Kafka's hero in The Castle, who would have given anything to get past the myriads of angel-bureaucrats who tormented him and speak directly to the Lord above.
I was reminded last week at a conference on the subject of conscience that human beings often use animals to help us think about what makes us human. We hunt animals for food and pleasure, domesticate them for use and companionship, sacrifice them as gifts to fellow human beings or to God, and ascribe virtues and flaws to them in order to see those attributes more clearly. Mal'achim, too, serve this purpose, I think. They remind us that just as we are higher than the beasts (who, like us, are mortal), so we are lower than the angels (who are immortal)—and yet, in some ways, we are higher than those angels too, and should not wish to trade places with them, despite their immortality, any more than we would trade places with a cow, a river, or a stone. Better to be who and as we are.
That is certainly the message of Hollywood's most unforgettable angel. Clarence's job is to show George how much worse things would have been if he had not existed as the good man he is: It's a Wonderful Life, you see, for all the terror and heartbreak. For one thing, there is love in our world. Between Jacob's encounter with the mal'achim on the ladder and his encounter with the angelic camp, he "served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her" (Gen. 29:19). For another, there are people who appear when we most need them to sound the voice of God that we most need to hear. They cannot but be messengers of God, at that moment. Or at least we cannot but see them that way. Like Clarence, they "earn their wings" by helping us rise to be the human beings that God intended.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.