‘Esau and Jacob reconcile,’ by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Avraham Dov of Owrucz (1760-1840) was a hassidic master during the formative years of the movement. In 1831, he left Europe for the Land of Israel; settling in Safed, he served as a leader of the local hassidic community.
Alas, the master died in a plague that struck Safed in late 1840. Some seven years later, in 1847, a collection of his hassidic teachings was published under the title Bat Ayin.
Given Rabbi Avraham Dov’s biography, it is no wonder we find in his teachings a love for the Holy Land. One example of his thoughts about the journey to the Land of Israel can be found in his comments on Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after his years in Aram with Laban.
According to the biblical narrative, as Jacob returns, he knows that an encounter with his brother Esau awaits him. Jacob sent an advance party to Esau, bearing words of appeasement and hoping to mitigate any wrath Esau might feel towards his brother because of past events (Genesis 32:3-5).
The Hebrew word for the members of this advance party is malahim – a term which is generally translated as angels, but can also mean messengers. Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator, explained that in fact Jacob sent real angels. A few verses earlier in the narrative, the Bible points out that Jacob met angels of God (Gen. 32:1).
There is a rabbinic tradition that distinguishes between angels that accompany a person in the Holy Land, and angels that accompany a person in the Diaspora.
Building on this tradition, Rashi suggests the angels which met Jacob after he left Laban were angels of the Holy Land.
Rabbi Avraham Dov of Owrucz took note of the comings and goings of Jacob’s accompanying angels, and suggested the angels Jacob sent to Esau were his Diaspora angels. Since Jacob now had his Holy Land angels, he could use his Diaspora angels as messengers to Esau.
However, Rabbi Avraham Dov wondered: How could Jacob already be accompanied by Holy Land angels since he had yet to return to the Land of Israel? This question had already vexed the 13th-century scholar, Nahmanides, who realized just how far Jacob was from the Holy Land. Nahmanides therefore rejected Rashi’s idea of Holy Land angels already accompanying Jacob.
Rabbi Avraham Dov did not reject Rashi’s explanation, but keeping Nahmanides’s objection in mind he explained that since Jacob was on the road to the Land of Israel, Holy Land angels were already accompanying him.
This explanation recalls a tale about Rabbi Avraham Dov from before he set out for the Land of Israel, when he visited Rabbi Aharon of Zhitomir (d. 1816).
At the time, Rabbi Aharon was ill, but was overjoyed at seeing his colleague. “For me to get better, I must drink water from the Land of Israel,” declared the bedridden Rabbi Aharon.
He then turned to Rabbi Avraham Dov: “You intend to travel to the Land of Israel; mentally, you are already there. Where a person’s thoughts are is truly where he is. So please, sir, put some water in your mouth and spit it out into a cup. This water will be like water that has come from the Land of Israel! I will drink it, and feel better.”
According to the tale, Rabbi Avraham Dov was surprised since he had yet to tell anyone about his intention to move to the Holy Land.
This tale may be somewhat difficult for our modern, scientifically oriented minds to grasp… or should we say – difficult to stomach. Nonetheless, it suggests an intriguing notion: the power of the focused mind to define the mental location of a person.
Jacob had set a course for the Holy Land and therefore was already accompanied by the aura of Holy Land angels. Rabbi Avraham Dov had already made a decision to move to the Land of Israel, and therefore, for medico-spiritual purposes, was already there! Of course, the potential for “being here and feeling there” is a double-edged sword: Just as a person can physically be in exile but mentally be in a holy space, so too a person can be in the holiest of locations but mentally be far away. But with this potent force in mind, the choice of “location” appears to largely be in the hands of the individual.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.