In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Gen. 28:10-32:3) Jacob is running away from the wrath of his brother Esau, from whom he has just snatched the birthright and the spiritual legacy of Abraham. He gets as far as Luz, where he has a most remarkable dream. “…He dreamt and behold, a ladder was set in the earth and its top reached to heaven, and behold, angels of God ascended and descended upon it”. Wait a minute. Ascended and descended? These are angels of God. If the top of the ladder is in heaven and the foot on earth, shouldn’t they be first descending from heaven and then ascending? The commentator Rashi answers this question as follows, “The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go outside the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to heaven. Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him”. According to Rashi, Jacob gets a new shift of angels, like some sort of angel Pony Express. (I might add that Rashi must think that angels have an excellent labor union, for it was he who said of our Torah portion a few weeks ago that the reason that three angels visited Abraham is that each angel has only one task, so that one came to comfort Abraham after his circumcision, one to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child, and one to tell of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.)
Professor Nehama Leibowitz, in her volume Studies in Genesis, comments, “In other words, man’s experiences in his own country are not to be compared with his situation in a strange land. To make his way on foreign soil, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace, amidst familiar landmarks. But wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection. Rashi’s brief remark fits the picture described in this portion perfectly. The angels of ‘outside the Holy Land’ accompany Jacob throughout his tribulations, from the moment he leaves Beersheba to his return to Mahanaim after spending twenty years in exile. There he is again confronted by angels—the guardian angels of the Homeland: ‘And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him’ (Gen. 33:2).
Going away from home is the history of our people. At God’s bidding, Abraham left his homeland, his land and his father’s house, and began a new nation in the land of Canaan. Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, left her home in Aram-Naharaim to go with Abraham's’servant to marry Isaac. Jacob left Beersheva for Haran, and returned to Canaan twenty years later, a changed man. His sons left Canaan for Egypt and 400 years later his descendants, the fledgling people Israel, left Egypt to wander in the desert for 40 years, and to become the inhabitants of Canaan once more. Centuries later, exiled from the land by the Babylonians, they left Jerusalem, returning some fifty years later no longer as Israelites, but as Jews. From the time of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, every time the Jewish people were forced to leave a place, it is said, the Shechina, the manifestation of God that had dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, moved on with them. And, because of the moving on, the changing, the Israelites did not become a dead ancient civilization like others of the ancient near east, but a thriving, changing, thinking religion, culture, and ethnicity which encompasses the world. Some of the moves were forced, some were anticipated. Some were reluctant, some joyous. But all of them were the precursors of growth.