Thursday, 26 Nov 2020

Written by Nicola Feuchtwang


I think I believe in angels

“…I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream…”    (ABBA song 1979)

Some of the most heart-warming  comments I received when I retired from medicine came from parents thanking me for advocating on behalf of their child for much needed services or facilities.  And yet, robust negotiation in my own interest has never been one of my skills.  Picturesque  markets could be a source of dread, because ‘bargaining’ was expected and it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would end up paying more than necessary, or with a flawed purchase.  Undesirable shifts on the rota?  Tricky chores? Unfortunately, behaving like a doormat tends to encourage people to wipe their feet on you – but I dislike confrontation, and find it too easy to see the point of view of the other party.  I would find myself wishing for someone, some sort of guiding spirit, to strengthen my resolve, to advocate on my behalf.

When it was my turn at work to serve on a Local Negotiating Committee, I was sent on a much-needed “Negotiating Skills” course and read a lot about business transactions, conflict resolution, and so on.  Depending on which university, website or management guru you choose, there are ‘5 Lasting Rules for Negotiating Anything’, or ‘Top 7 Rules for Negotiating like a Pro’, or ‘8 Best Tips’, or 41….  All speak of the need for an appropriate attitude, for planning, for communication, but the most  fundamental guideline seems to be: Be very clear in your own mind what your “bottom line” is (but don’t tell the other side), and ask for more than you expect to get!

I learned just enough to pass muster, but am left with an abiding admiration for people to whom assertive standing up for their own rights and needs seems to come naturally.

Our ancestor Jacob seems to have that knack.  At both the beginning and the end of this week’s parasha, Vayetze, he negotiates deals.   The first time, he is a fugitive from his family home, running away from his twin brother Esau who has vowed to kill him for cheating him of his rightful blessing.  Jacob’s bargaining partner is no less than God, who in his dream has promised him land, descendants and protection  – but despite his awe, Jacob is very clear in setting out his own terms:

“If God remains with me, protects me on this journey, gives me food and clothing, and if I return safe to my father’s house – then Adonai shall be my God….”

The second time, he is the prosperous head of a household with wives, children, livestock and a retinue of servants, heading back to his ancestral home but nevertheless running away (or at least avoiding) the uncle whom he  has served for twenty years and whose talent for deceit and trickery matches Jacob’s own. He sneaks away as surreptitiously as a large caravan can do.  Laban pursues and catches up with him.  They exchange bitter words of recrimination, but Laban gives in and proposes a pact of mutual non-aggression:

“May Adonai watch between us when we are out of sight of each other…  God is the witness between you and me”

Maybe there were not many possible variations in the form which could be taken by a pact in the Ancient Near East, but there are some striking resonances across the years between the two scenarios. On his way to Haran, the young Jacob ‘comes upon’ (vayifga) a place, takes a stone to place under his head, has a dream and sees angels (mal’akhei Elohim) (on the famous stairway or ladder), and hears a divine promise and instruction.  In the morning, he sets up the stone as a monument, and names the site of his experience.

All those years later, Jacob tells his wives that he has had another dream in which an angel (mal’akh) has spoken to him telling him to leave Haran.  The parashah concludes as it began, with Jacob setting up a stone as a monument.  The next morning, he and his uncle go their separate ways – and Jacob is met by (vayifg’u vo) angels (mal’akhei Elohim) whom he recognises to be divine beings, and he names the place, before proceeding to send ‘mal’akhim’ ahead of him to Esau.  And the climax of his story  – to be read next week – will be when he wrestles with a “man” whom he recognises as a divine being and who renames him as Israel, and who is considered by some of the commentators to be the guardian angel of Esau. Once again, Jacob is able to negotiate robustly: “I will not let you go unless you bless me”.

Apparently incidental encounters, naming the place, firm boundaries marked by stones, standing his ground in order to secure what he needs:  Jacob has a talent for getting the best of a bargain, but we who read his story are given a glimpse of another dimension.  Divine messengers, angels, guardian spirits, feature at every stage of Jacob’s story.  He sees them, they speak to him, instruct him, accompany him, wrestle with him, and he acknowledges this at the end of his life as he invokes blessing for his grandchildren:

“The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day; The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads….”

I have never knowingly seen or heard angels, except perhaps in the wise counsel of friends and teachers, or the selfless generosity of those who volunteer in our communities to support the vulnerable.  Perhaps however they can be there for each of us, guiding us, strengthening our resolve to achieve what needs to be done, if only we allow ourselves to be aware of them.

Nicola Feuchtwang  LBC Student Rabbi



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.