Though they are spiritual entities without physical attributes, in Tanach we find that angels are described as having wings and being able to fly.
So why were the malachim in Yaakov Avinu’s dream climbing up and down the ladder?
The Sifsei Kohen, also known as the Shach al HaTorah, gives a fascinating explanation:
In Parashas Vayeira we learned that the malachim whose mission was to save Lot and destroy Sodom told Lot, “We are destroying this place.”
Saying “we,” as if they had the power or authority to do so rather than acknowledging that it was solely the Ribbono shel Olam Who has the power to build or destroy, was a grievous error. As punishment, the wings of these malachim were weakened and they were banished mi’mechitzasam for 133 years. Unable to fly, they ascended the ladder by climbing and leaping. Their goal was to see if they were already permitted to return, but they discovered that they were still blocked from entering, and so they descended back to earth instead. It was these malachim that Yaakov Avinu later sent to Esav.
We can’t fathom the holiness of an angel. But deluding ourselves into thinking that we are in control is a hazardous affliction that humans struggle with daily. Whether in the singular (“I”) or the plural (“we”), the notion that man has some sort of ability to decide his own fate, let alone the fate of others, is a common — and dangerous — fallacy.
We all have seen the wealthiest of tycoons suddenly thrust into poverty, and the mightiest of men cut down in milliseconds. We all know that every second of life is a gift, and there is no guarantee of what the next moment will bring. Yet when it comes to applying this concept to our daily lives, many of us find that to be challenging.
The Shelah Hakadosh (in Shaar Ha’osiyos, Emes Ve’emunah) describes at length the importance of saying “im yirtzeh Hashem” when discussing future plans, stressing that using this phrase is part of the “dveikus ha’emunah” required of every Yid.
Making sure that we preface our plans with these words, concentrating on their meaning, we can help avoid this trap.
Another aspect of this concept is a source of comfort and strength.
“When Yaakov Avinu set out for Charan he said to himself, ‘When Eliezer went to bring Rivka [he took with him] 10 camels, etc., etc., and I [don’t have] with me even a single ring or bracelet …’ Then he said, “What? Will I lose, chas v’shalom, my hope and my trust in my Creator? No, I will not! My help is from Hashem.” (Breishis Rabbah 68:2).
Some of the meforshim on the Midrash question the words, “then he said,” for this would seem to indicate that at first Yaakov Avinu gave up all hope, and then he reconsidered.
Since it is inconceivable that Yaakov Avinu would give up hope — even for a moment — they say that the correct version of the Midrash is without those words.
The Shem MiShmuel, however, gives an explanation that clarifies the extant version as well.
There are two approaches to dealing with a challenge or a crisis. One option is not even to think about the challenge, not even to try to figure out the depths of the crisis, but to simply to “Cast your burden on Hashem and He will bear you” (Tehillim 55:23). By blocking out all the details and ramifications of what he is up against, a person relies wholly and totally on Hashem.
This is, of course, an excellent and praiseworthy approach. But there is even a greater level in bitachon. This entails taking stock of the situation, drawing the inevitable conclusion that according to the rules of teva there is no reason for hope as there does not seem to be any way out, and at that point declaring, “I have no hope according to teva, yet I hope for and await the help of Hashem and trust in His help to surmount the rules of teva.”
Yaakov Avinu exemplified the second way. After first setting down the gravity of the situation, “Then he said, no, I will not lose my hope and my trust in my Creator! My help is from Hashem!”
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As long as we delude ourselves that we are in control of our destiny, then when it appears that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no plausible escape hatch from our troubles, we are left without hope. Only when we train ourselves — in times of tranquility as well as times of stress and challenge — to cast ourselves and our burden onto our Merciful Father in Shamayim, are our hearts fortified with trust and hope, and the impossible becomes likely.