This week’s Parasha begins with Yaakov’s famous revelation depicting angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching the heavens. Rashi explains that the ascending angels escorted Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, but when he left, the descending angels accompanied him. Apparently, Rashi believes that Eretz Yisrael’s angels operate only while they are within its borders, and the new team of angels had to take over in Chutz LaAretz. If Yaakov’s absconding from Israel necessitated this swap, it should take place as Yaakov crossed over Israel’s border. However, according to Rashi, Yaakov slept in Yerushalayim, far from the border, so why does the swap occurring at this seemingly improper point?
Rabbi Isaac Bernstein suggests that although Yaakov still rested in Eretz Yisrael’s heart, his thoughts and focus turned towards life in Galut, the exile. Rabbi Bernstein explains that when determining a human’s location, one must consider his heart and mind’s setting in addition to his physical locale. Yaakov had left Eretz Yisrael emotionally; therefore, the replacement of the old angels was required. Any teacher can attest to the truth of Rabbi Bernstein’s suggestion; the consistently quoted phrase describing the brouhaha of the last few minutes of class or the last day before summer vacation is, “The students were already out the door.”
This idea is reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s famous quote describing life in the Diaspora, “Libi BaMizrach VaAni BeSof Maarav,” “My heart is in Yerushalayim although I am living physically in the farthest throes of the west.”
A friend of mine told me that his father would spend Shabbat, in a concentration camp during the Shoah, singing familiar Zemirot and mentally reviewing the laws of Shabbat. I realized, after hearing this story, that while the Nazis physically stole his Shabbat, they could not prevent him from celebrating Shabbat in his heart and mind, a poignant example of how our thoughts and emotions gage our hopes and aspirations.
Indeed, there are times when reality prevents us from physically achieving goals we want to accomplish, like when we are stuck at work but would rather be with our families, or when we want to give more Tzedakah but our financial resources prevent us. At these times, our thoughts and feelings indicate our real nature.