After Yaakov Avinu left Lavan, he went, as the expression goes, from the frying pan into the fire. His destiny was to come face to face with his brother Esav. Knowing that this was his destiny, he sent messengers to Esav (Bereshit 32:4): וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו (And Yaakov sent malachim, i.e. messengers, ahead of him, to Esav). Who were these messengers? Rashi tells us in his commentary on that verse that they were מַלְאָכִים מַמָּשׁ (literally angels).
Even though he had such malachim on his side, he knew it wasn’t going to be a simple matter. How do we know? It is written in Bereshit 33:1: וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ (And Yaakov lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, Esav coming and 400 men with him). In other words, Esav wasn’t coming to say, ‘Hey bro’, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you for a while. I missed you.’ No, he was coming to wipe him out, G d forbid, as Yaakov rightly understood. Let’s read a part of his prayer the previous evening (Bereshit 32:12): הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי־יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִים (Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, mother with the children). What was he afraid of? He wasn’t afraid of Esav per se, for a spiritual giant of his caliber wouldn’t have been afraid of a man. Rather, it was as Rashi explains on Bereshit 22:11: קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים: נִתְמַעֲטוּ זְכֻיּוֹתַי עַל יְדֵי הַחֲסָדִים וְהָאֱמֶת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִמִּי לְכָךְ אֲנִי יָרֵא שֶׁמָּא מִשֶּׁהִבְטַחְתַּנִי נִתְקַלְקַלְתִּי בְחֵטְא וְיִגְרֹם לִי לְהִמָּסֵר בְּיַד עֵשָׂו (I am small, i.e. unworthy, because of Your deeds of loving kindness: my merits have been diminished because of your loving kindness and truth which You did with me; therefore, I fear, maybe, from when You promised me, I have become ruined through a sin which would cause me to be delivered into Esav’s hand).
But the most astonishing thing happened. After recording the details of their encounter, the Torah says the following (Bereshit 33:16): וַיָּשׇׁב בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עֵשָׂו לְדַרְכּוֹ שֵׂעִירָה (And Esav returned that day to his way [i.e. he did not do teshuvah], to Seir). Why does the verse only mention Esav? What happened to his band of 400 thugs? Rashi answers: עֵשָׂו לְבַדּוֹ וְד’ מֵאוֹת אִישׁ שֶׁהָלְכוּ עִמּוֹ נִשְׁמְטוּ מֵאֶצְלוֹ אֶחָד אֶחָד (Only Esav [returned], and the 400 men that went with him had slipped away from him, i.e. dropped out, one by one). How come?
Let’s fast forward many years. The Jewish People are now on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moshe Rabbeinu sends messengers to the descendants of Esav, i.e. the nation of Edom, to request permission to allow the Jews to pass through Edom’s land on their way to Eretz Yisrael, as it says (Bemidbar 20:14): וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה מַלְאָכִים (And Moshe sent malachim, i.e. angelic messengers). But Moshe received a very different response than Yaakov (Bemidbar 20:18): וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֱדוֹם לֹא תַעֲבֹר בִּי פֶּן־בַּחֶרֶב אֵצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ (And Edom said to him, You will not cross by me lest I go out to meet you with the sword). This was not just an empty threat because that’s exactly what they did (20:20): וַיֵּצֵא אֱדוֹם לִקְרָאתוֹ בְּעַם כָּבֵד וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה (And Edom went out to meet [the people] with a significant amount of people and with a strong arm, i.e. with a well-armed military force).
So the obvious question is, Why the difference? Why was it that with Yaakov, Esav’s army melted away, but with Moshe, Esav’s army refused to back down?
R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov, one of R’ Akiva’s last students, taught the following (Pirkei Avot 4:11): הָעוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה אַחַת קוֹנֶה לוֹ פְרַקְלִיט אֶחָד וְהָעוֹבֵר עֲבֵרָה אַחַת קוֹנֶה לוֹ קַטֵּגוֹר אֶחָד (One who performs a mitzvah acquires for himself an angelic advocate, and one who does an aveirah [transgression] acquires for himself an angelic accuser). It’s not just that we acquire them, but rather, we create them. We literally cause them to come into existence. And what is their purpose? It’s all about justice. We are constantly being brought into Heavenly courts (whether we realize it or not) to face charges brought against us by the Heavenly prosecutors. Who are these prosecutors? They are the angelic accusers spoken about by R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov, the ones created by our own aveirot. And who is present in court to defend us? It is the angelic advocates created by our mitzvot. So really, the entire proceedings are a direct fallout from the choices we make down here. And all of this has to do with whether the flow of good from Hashem comes down to this world without leeches attached to it or whether it comes down with the forces of impurity sucking off its holiness [kedushah] to sustain themselves (as we have explained at length in previous articles).
But there is more to it than that. Although it may be true and self-evident that ‘all men are created equal’ (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776), this is not the case with the malachim. Not only their quantity, but also their quality, i.e. their power, are the direct result of the holy words of Torah that we, as the recipients of Hashem’s Torah, utter. Likutei Moharan discusses this at length and we cannot reproduce the entirety of the teaching here, but we will quote one passage to illustrate this important principle (L.M. 20:8): וְאֵלּוּ הַכֹּחוֹת הָרוּחָנִיּוֹת הַיְנוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים הֵן לְפִי הִתְחַדְּשׁוּת הַתּוֹרָה וְהִתְחַדְּשׁוּת הַתּוֹרָה לְפִי הַקְּדֻשָּׁה שֶׁנִּתּוֹסֵף לְמַעְלָה כַּנַּ”ל לְפִי רְבוֹת הַקְּדֻשָּׁה כֵּן נִמְשָׁךְ רִבּוּי הַתּוֹרָה וּלְפִי רֹב הַתּוֹרָה כֵּן רִבּוּי הַמַּלְאָכִים הַנַּ”ל. וְכֵן לְהֵפֶךְ הַיְנוּ שֶׁלִּפְעָמִים הַקְּדֻשָּׁה כָּל כָּךְ מֻעֶטֶת עַד שֶׁהַמַּלְאָכִים הַנִּבְרָאִים מֵחִדּוּשֵׁי הַתּוֹרָה הֵם מְעוּטֵי כֹּחַ שֶׁאֵין כֹּחַ בְּיָדָם לַעֲנֹשׁ אֶת הָרְשָׁעִים בְּחַרְבָּא וּקְטָלָא וְאֵין לָהֶם כֹּחַ אֶלָּא לְהַכְנִיעַ אֶת הָרְשָׁעִים בִּלְבַד וּלְהָבִיא מֹרֶךְ בִּלְבָבָם אֲבָל לֹא לַעֲנֹשׁ אוֹתָם בְּחַרְבָּא לְהַעֲבִיר אוֹתָם (These spiritual powers, i.e. the malachim, are according to the renewal of the Torah, and the renewal of the Torah is according to the kedushah that is added above, the more abundant the kedushah, the more abundant is the Torah that is drawn down, and according to the abundance of Torah is the abundance of the malachim. The opposite is also true, i.e. sometimes the kedushah is so inferior that the malachim that are created from the novel insights of the Torah are inferior in strength that they do not have the power to punish the wicked with sword and killing, they only have the power to subdue the wicked and instill fear into their hearts, but not to punish them with sword and to eliminate them). Likutei Moharan goes on to explain that sometimes, the kedushah of our Torah is so weak that the malachim don’t even have the power to instill fear into our enemies, all they have is the power to cause other nations to rise against our enemies. And sometimes, our malachim are so weak, that all they can do is silence our enemies. And sometimes, they don’t even have that power. In short, there are multiple levels, subtle gradations in all of this. The main point is that the power of our advocating malachim is completely dependent on the level of kedushah emerging from our lives which is directed related to the quantity and quality of our Torah learning.
Of course, the same thing happens with respect to the creation of the malachim who advocate our punishment and destruction, G d forbid. Everything is according to the extent and significance of the aveirot that we commit, G d forbid, in transgressing our holy covenant.
This explains the difference in effectiveness of the malachim sent by Yaakov compared to those sent by Moshe. Yaakov had just returned victorious from his many years under the thumb of the wicked Lavan and was on an exceptionally high spiritual level. Not only that, but he had just spent all night wrestling/dancing with Esav’s malach, the Satan himself, and emerged victorious (although with a dislocated hip). His life and his Torah were at a very high level of kedushah and, therefore, the malachim that he sent ahead of him were very powerful. They literally scared off Esav’s army of 400 men. On the other hand, the Nation of Yisrael was not exactly at a high level when we were getting close to entering into the land. Near the close of the 40 years in the desert, we had just come off a series of major sins including a failure to appreciate the tremendous merit of Miriam, complaining to Moshe about the lack of water, and the rebellion led by Korach and his band of 250 renegade sages, not to mention the other big sins that we did years earlier that involved the golden calf and the spies. The bottom line was that the malachim that Moshe had available to him were of an inferior grade compared to those that Yaakov had available to him. As a result, Edom wasn’t scared in the least and acted with a high hand against us.
Interestingly, we can see this same dynamic playing out during the Akeidah. Just when Avraham had stretched out his arm to grab the knife to slaughter his son Yitzchak, a malach appeared to him and said (Bereshit 22:12): אַל־תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל־הַנַּעַר וְאַל־תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹקִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי (Do not send out your hand to the young one, and don’t do anything to him, for now I know that you are one who fears G d, and you didn’t withhold your son, your only son, from me). If the malach is speaking, which he is, why did he say that Avraham didn’t withhold his son from him? That doesn’t make any sense. What does the malach have to do with Avraham’s test? If anything, the verse should have ended with the word ממנו [from Him], not ממני [from me]. The answer to this question explains why we placed a comma in our translation in the location that we placed it, i.e. ‘…your only son, from me’. In other words, the angel looked at himself, so to speak, and realized from his own existence, from his own innate strength and power, that Avraham must have performed an amazing act of self-negation, i.e. יְרֵא אֱלֹקִים [fear of G d], to perform the will of G d. And that’s how the malach knew. He knew because he was a supremely powerful malach.
The Jewish People are currently experiencing a period of unparalleled anti-Semitism that has encompassed the entire inhabited world. There is no place free of it. It is exactly what we read regarding the nations of the world at the end of days (Tehillim 83:5): אָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַכְחִידֵם מִגּוֹי וְלֹא־יִזָּכֵר שֵׁם־יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד (They said, Let us come and cut them off from being a nation, and let the name of Yisrael never be remembered anymore). If we had powerful malachim at our disposal, this wouldn’t be happening.
What can we do? We need an army of powerful malachim who will smash our enemies and impregnate the fear of G d in all those who survive, as happened during the Exodus (Shemot 15:14-16): שָׁמְעוּ עַמִּים יִרְגָּזוּן חִיל אָחַז יֹשְׁבֵי פְּלָשֶׁת׃ אָז נִבְהֲלוּ אַלּוּפֵי אֱדוֹם אֵילֵי מוֹאָב יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ רָעַד נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן׃ תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן עַד־יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ יְיָ עַד־יַעֲבֹר עַם־זוּ קָנִיתָ (The nations heard and were agitated, trembling seized the inhabitants of Philistine [i.e. the Gaza Strip], then the generals of Edom were confounded, quaking seized the mighty ones of Moav, all the inhabitants of Cana’an melted away, dread and fear fell upon, through Your great arm they became silent like the stone until Your people crossed over, Hashem, until this nation that You acquired crossed over). And the only way to produce such powerful malachim is to increase the kedushah of our nation. And how do we do that? It will only come through unceasing tefillah, recitation of Sefer Tehillim, enhanced levels of modesty (for women as well as for men) and learning Torah with mesirut nefesh [self-sacrifice]. According to the Rambam, we are involved in a milchemet mitzvah [an obligatory war] and everyone has a moral obligation and duty to be involved. No one is exempt, not even the bride under the chuppah.
Although we need to pray constantly for the safety and success of all of the men and women who are laying down their lives in defense of our land and our families, our reliance must only be in Hashem, as stated in the final Mishnah to Sotah: וְעַל מִי יֵשׁ לָנוּ לְהִשָּׁעֵן עַל אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם (And who can we lean on? [Only] on our Father Who is in Heaven).