In The Presence of Angels

Many years ago, I read the book, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish
Identity in Buddhist India by the poet Roger Kamenetz. The book chronicles a meeting in
Dharamsala, India between the Dalai Lama and eight very diverse Jewish delegates. Reading
Parshat Va’Yeitze last month, and thinking about the future of our Temple Beth David
community, I was caused me to think about The Jew in the Lotus. Parshat Va’Yeitze, like The
Jew in the Lotus, is a spiritual adventure story about religious belief, exile, and survival.

In the book, the Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee from Tibet for his life wants to
understand how Jews survived outside of their land for millenia, gets some very surprising
answers from his hand-picked Jewish support network. In addition to the very practical
comment from Blu Greenberg, who advised, “well, we weren’t celibate,” the Kabbalist, Rabbi
Jonathan Omer Man, tells the Dalai Lama a midrash about angels. Not only does every person
have at least one angel assigned to him or her, he explained, every blade of grass has an angel
cheering it on, blowing on it, and encouraging it to grow. The Dalai Lama likes that story very
much, and like Jacob, was inspired and encouraged, by the vision of malachim – angels.

In the opening verses of Parshat Va’Yeitze we read: “Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out
for Haran. He encountered a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had
a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were
going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob, alone and running for his life from the wrath of his older brother, sees in this
heavenly vision proof of God’s protection. Twenty years later, and at the end of our parashah,
Jacob finally returns to the Land of Israel with his family, after living with and working for his
father-in-law, Laban. In the next-to-last verse of our parashah, the Torah tells us: “Jacob went on
his way, and angels of God encountered him.” (Genesis 32:2) So, we might ask, what does the
Torah teach us by framing Jacob’s time in Haran with the vision of angels?

One perspective is that in leaving his home, and serving Laban for twenty years with no
news of or from his nuclear family, Jacob faced more than ordinary hardship; he faced a trial that
called into question the meaning and purpose of his life. Under the circumstances, we would
certainly understand if, at any point during his stay with Uncle Laban, Jacob would have
despaired of ever regaining his freedom and providing for his growing family. But throughout
his difficult times, Jacob’s resolve never seems to waver. Perhaps because the Torah tells us
twice that Jacob encountered angels – both times using the same Hebrew word, va-yifga – we are
to understand that not only at the beginning and end of his trial but throughout his entire journey,
Jacob was accompanied by angels, angels who guarded him, supported him, and gave him the
strength he needed to overcome the challenges that confronted him.

Like our ancestor, Jacob, each of us, individually, and together as a community, will face
existential trials – not merely hard times, but challenges that make us face the darkest parts of
our souls. When this happens, it is important for us to know, like Jacob, that we do not face these
trials alone. Parshat Va’Yeitze, beginning and ending with Heavenly visions, teaches each one
of us that even during the most difficult times of our lives, and like each blade of grass struggling
to breathe free, we are surrounded by angels, whether we know it or not.

In the “real,” material world, individuals who provide expertise, encouragement, and
often necessary resources to help support individuals or small companies get on their feet or
transition as they adapt to changing circumstances are called “angels.” — We are in the midst of
these kinds of angels, as well as the Heavenly kind, here in Rochester.

Many of you know about the Farash Foundation and its mission, which is, in part, to
enhance a vibrant, inclusive Jewish community in Monroe and Ontario Counties. Max and
Marian Farash, the founders of this foundation, are undeniably malchei Elohim, (God’s angels),
in every sense of the term. Together they cared enough about the community that supported
them to leave it a legacy of possibility and hope. Three women, Hollis Budd, Isobel Goldman
and Judy Azoff, whom many of you may know, are the three angels with whom all Rochesterarea
synagogues and Jewish organizations will relate, to help us redefine, reinvigorate, and
reposition ourselves in our changing world.

We have been given the opportunity to dream and to make our dreams a reality.
Throughout December and the beginning of January, these three lovely women want to hear
about our dreams, support our creative and collaborative ideas, and help us bring our ideas to

Sometimes, as in the case of the Dalai Lama, it takes a special sensitivity to see a group
of eight Jews as angels who would help him navigate the Tibetan-Buddhists on their way
through the perils of exile. Sometimes, as in the case of Jacob, it takes fearing for one’s life,
losing touch with one’s immediate family and living in exile to open oneself to the possibility of
experiencing well-being and spiritual transformation. For us, it will take knowing, really
knowing at our deepest level, that we are in the presence of angels, who want to help us survive
as a community during our period of transformation. We are in the presence of angels who will
become a part of our dreams – so that we need not be afraid because of what we have lost – but
rather, so that we may dream about who we might become.

Like Jacob, may God protect and defend us on our journey. May God preserve us from
pain along our way. Most of all, may God favor us with happiness and peace.

B’virkat Shalom,
Rabbi Aviva Berg