Jacob's Angels and the House of Prayer - (December 2011)

Parshat Vayeitzei  opens with the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder and its angels. It describes Jacob’s encounter with the Divine at the Place which Jacob then called the “gate” of Heaven. (Genesis 28:17).

He named the place of revelation Beit El, the House of God.

In one sense, this “place” is the future Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But it is also the “part” of God we might call “the Temple in Heaven”- a place of encounter and revelation which may be found in the hearts of all who seek God in humility and awe. We “go” there when we daven the liturgy, when we practice receptive contemplative prayer (hitbonenut), and when we engage in discursive private prayer (hitbodedut).

In  Haftarat Vayeitzei  (for Sefardim) we read the following:

“At Beit El he found him, and there he will speak with us.”
Hosea 12:5

Much academic ink has been used in translating and interpreting this verse, with variants including:

He (Jacob) found Him (God) at Beit El
He (God found him (Jacob) at Beit El
He/he (the angel) found him (Jacob) at Beit El


There He (God) will speak to HIM (Jacob)
There He spoke to US(Jacob’s descendents)

Most of the variations in translation/interpretation seem to come from the fact that the Masorete text uses “imanu” (with us) whilst the Septuagint uses “imo”. I do not speak either Ivrit or Biblical Hebrew and I am no Bible Scholar, I simply spotted the variation in my three different Bibles and then found the reasons clearly expressed online HERE.

Whenever a Biblical text has multiple meanings I prick up my ears.

- I remember the “sight of sound” (Exodus 20:15) that we experienced at Sinai.

- I remember the Shin and Zayin engraved on my Shabbos candle-sticks.
They divide and separate flame while bearing one light.
One candle for Shamor, one for Zachor;

-I remember that “God has spoken once, twice have I heard” (Psalm 62:12)

-And above all, I remember “I will be what I will be”. (Exodus 3:14)

Whatever the academic reasons for the variations in the Hosea text, the Haftarah quote is rich in potential meanings. The ambiguity is a textual challenge but it is also a deliberate and beautiful product of its poetic and prophetic form.

In what way does this textual “Angel of Jacob” speak to us as Jewish Contemplatives?

The Jacob narrative in Bereishit is full of such deliberate ambiguity, particularly when the text is attempting to describe Divine action. Many times the revelation shimmers around the action without confirming its author. This is especially so in the  description of Jacob’s struggle with “a man” in Parashat Vayishlach (Gen 33:25)... We are never quite sure how revelation is taking place. Is it an encounter with God Himself, the angels He sends, or the humans and circumstances Jacob encounters? As contemplative Jews, we ask ourselves the same questions in our own prayer lives. Sometimes our periods of solitary and reflective prayer throw these questions up for us to consider. Sometimes those periods contain the moments when we are given answers.

Beit El is the “House of Prayer” which we enter in hitbodedut.

It is not just the place where we speak our thoughts and desires to HaShem.
It is also the place where we hope to hear the Voice of God responding to our prayers, and in this we may attempt to follow Jacob’s example.

In Part Two of Kuntres M’arat Ha-Lev (The first of the entries on this website/blog written in 2005) I wrote at length about hearing “the Voice” (the description is found at section "2c" HERE). It was a deliberately ambiguous passage as it touched lightly on areas of mystical experience which are best not described in detail, but experienced anew by each person. It is true that in a tiny number of instances I was writing about the Voice of God, heard with the ears of the mind or soul and not the body and always filtered and obscured by our personalities and powers of imagination. Such “auditory” spiritual experiences may happen once in a life-time if at all. They are most certainly a rarity.

Let’s take a look at Jacob’s own experience in this matter:

In Jacob’s “147” years (Gen 47:28) he had direct (recorded) experience of “hearing God’s Voice”- at Bethel (while re-affirming the Abrahamic covenant) at Gen 28; during the stay with Laban (requiring his return to Canaan)- at Gen 31; at Jabbok/Peniel (when wrestling and receiving a name change) – at Gen 32; on being sent back to Bethel (reiteration of the covenant) at Gen 35; at Beer-Sheba (en route to Egypt to meet Joseph) at Gen 46. That’s only five times in one hundred and forty-seven years. That seems about right to me, for a Patriarch. It should also help us to keep our mystical aspirations in realistically humble perspective.

But there are several times when Jacob “hears” God’s voice less “directly”: via angels (messengers) and during dreams. These less “exalted” and more indirect types of spiritual experience are also far more common in the lives of ordinary contemplatives. Though they seem to come in infrequent but intense bursts, we often have a very clear intuition that they are in the nature of personal revelations and epiphanies. A request made in prayer for illumination on a problem (sometimes practical, sometimes theological, sometimes career-based, sometimes ethical) is often followed by one or many of the following:

An impulse to open a particular book and finding a directly relevant passage;

A coincidental reading of an answering phrase in an unrelated book we are currently reading;

A passage in the Bible or Siddur which leaps out at us unexpectedly;

A meeting with a friend, or more often a stranger who says something directly pertinent to our question with no possible way of knowing it was on our mind;

A scene in a television programme hitting our nail on its head;

An apparently meaningless tune that enters our head and replays itself until we slowly remember the lyrics which, (Surprise! Surprise!) fit our problems’ solution exactly;

A telephone call or email from someone we had not heard from for months or years expressing related thoughts or initiating a coincidence which leads to an “answer”.

The list could go on and on. For me, these are clear examples of angels bearing messages from God for our own individual ears. In those months or years when we don’t seem to be meeting such angels we can feel quite desolate. We would be floating on air, or perhaps gasping for breath in the suffocation of immanence, if these events came too frequently or too intensely. Sometimes it is almost a relief when they stop visiting us. But when they happen, we really ought to be grateful and sit up and take notice. We may not be Jacob. But we are his descendents. They are gifts which are more common than many will admit.

Though it does not follow infallibly, I think it is also true to say that:

-the deeper one’s silent periods in daily living are;

-the more frequent or intense one’s specifically attentive periods in prayer are;

-and the less one is expecting a dramatic answer yet still persistently asking for help:

....the more likely it seems to be that these angels visit us.

Our task is to be ever on the lookout for such opportunities, and sometimes these “angels” are only “recognized” by us if we are prepared to wrestle with them.

But what of the many years that Jacob was neither talking to God “directly”, encountering clearly “angelic” messengers, or accessing the “world which is coming” in his sleep?

Jacob was a man who saw Providence at work because he had time to reflect upon it. His tale is also one of great human drama:- as he followed his mother’s dynastic schemes and plans; as he learnt a hard lesson about deceit when he himself was deceived by Laban; as he was torn apart by fear of his brother, as he struggled to keep his large and volatile family together, as he suffered the long years of the agony of Joseph’s disappearance. In all of this he was a man of contemplative bent. A shepherd, a tent-dweller, one who would have preferred to stay “at home”. Such a person would have been attentively listening for the “Voice of God” in the most apparently secular/mundane aspects of his life. Such a person would have heard the Voice of God everywhere and in everything….certainly from the time he had realised that “God was in this place” and “he knew it not” onwards.

For us it is also the same. As contemplatives, we are not always scaling stairways to heaven, but we are forever going up and coming down so that, bit by bit, we are removing the veils which hide our God in both the night of our private prayers and in the brash daylight of our ordinary lives. We may find an angelic light enmeshed in the apparently mundane, just as we might find the answers to our prayers surprisingly ordinary and down-to-earth.

Many commentators wrestle with the (literary) Angel of Peniel. Some say it was God’s Presence. Some say it was the angel of Esau (or even Esau himself). Some say it was an “ordinary” man sent as a messenger to try Jacob. Some say it was the fear inside Jacob emerging in a dream. It could be all, or many, of those simultaneously.

All of these are messengers of Ein Sof. We hear the Voice of God in the secular as well as the religious. In the speech of our family and friends. In the written word which we seek or find. In a talmud which is composed of the daily events in our lives. In a scripture which is formed by our unfolding life stories and choices.

God found Jacob in His house, and in that House He will speak with us.

Once we have encountered God, for however short a moment in time, we know what “home” really means.

Whether you are living “in a cave” as a full-time contemplative as I am able to at the moment—or if your life is largely active with moments of silent waiting on God squeezed in wherever you can – or if you are unable to pray and just wish you could. If you place yourself in God’s House……that is to say, if you make God your focal point above all else… I guarantee, you will meet his angels. More than that, He will let you “find Him and there He will speak with you”.

N R Davies
December 1 2011

(This commentary was written for the private Jewish Contemplatives Community website and was originally published there in 2008.)