Sunday, November 14, 2010

Angelic Beings, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Resurrection

Last night I read to David from the JPS Children's Bible the story of Jacob's struggle with the angel. He had a hard time understanding the story. Who was this angel? Why was he fighting with Jacob? I told him that I didn't know and that I would look it up, and then I tried to steer him to bed. But he wouldn't give up. Against my better judgement I finally fell back on the story we all learned in kindergarten (and then in first grade and every year after that) that this was Esav's angel. And as I feared, I then had to try and explain to him how it could be that Esav had an angel that would want to harm Jacob, in violation of Hashem's overall plans. I promised him I'd look it up and he agreed to go to sleep.
Rashi concludes his perush on this pasuk by noting that according the Sages this was the sar of Esav (following Bereshis Rabba). However, I then noticed that all the other perushim (in my chumash) take a different approach, i.e., this angel was a typical Divinely-dispatached angel and was not trying to harm Jacob. Rashbam states that the angel wanted to ensure that Jacob would not flee from Esav and that he would witness the fulfillment of God's promise that he would protect him. Radak further explains that the purpose of the fight between Jacob and the angel was to make Jacob realize how strong he was, and just like the angel could not best him, neither would Esav (also in the following pasuk). Hizkuni (here and in the following pasuk) combines both Rashbam and Radak. (I won't get into this with David, but Radak [vv. 26, 31] also maintains that this entire episode transpired in the course of a prophetic vision.)
I'm glad David hasn't pressed me for more information about angelic phenomena, but at least now I can go back to him and explain to him the Jacob vs. Angel fight with an answer that won't make me cringe.
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Last year David was fascinated with God's omnipotence. "Who is stronger, Hashem or [fill in the blank]?" "Hashem can beat Batman, right?" "Hashem says something and it happens, so just like he said 'Let there be light' and there was light, all he has to do it say 'you're dead' and you're dead?" Omnipotence was easy.
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More difficult was omnipresence. "I don't understand, where is He?" "Is he in the tree?" "How can he be everywhere?"
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David has always been interested in cemeteries for some strange reason. A few months ago he asked me if it's true that after someone dies he comes back to life again. Someone in school--I think I know who--must have told him about techiyas ha-mesim. I told him (following the Rambam) that some people--not necessarily everyone--will be resurrected in the future. He got very upset. "But I don't want to be stuck under the rock and my body will fall apart." So I tried to explain the distinction between our corporeal body and our non-corporeal neshama. Even after we die and our body rots, our eternal neshama goes to Hashem and gets to stay with him forever. I think he was ok with that response, although he didn't really grasp the the concept of a neshama. I told him it is inside of us. "Is it near the heart?" (I don't remember why, but during the parsha review Friday night neshama came up and he was able to recall some of what I had told him with a smile.)
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UPDATE: Tonight I shared the my findings with David. I explained that there are different interpretations and I started by restating the "traditional" explanation that the angel was Esav's sar. But David simply couldn't understand why an angel would act to subvert God's plan. Finally I just told him to forget and and I proceeded with my findings. It took a while for him to understand what I was saying, but finally he told me that the second "question" [i.e., answer] makes more sense than the first.

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