A teaching from Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, from Ohel Torah, Parshat Vayishlach
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו Jacob sent messengers (or angels) before him… Genesis 32:4
צריך לדעת אומרו לפניו ללו צורך. ונראה הפירוש שיעקב שלח את המלאכים מלפניו, והיינו שילכו מאתו כי איננו נצרך לעזרתם היות כי השם ברוך הוא יכול לעזור בלי מלאכים ובלתי שום סיבה.
Why does the Torah say “before him”? This seems redundant. It seems the meaning is that he sent the messengers from before him, that is, they left him because he no longer needed their help, since G!d is able to help without angels or any other reason.
The Kotzker was famous for his demands on his disciples, especially that they do the work themselves. Like his own mentor, Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peshischa, he demanded that his students be their own best selves, rather than trying to be the closest approximation of their rebbe. Once someone came to the Kotzker and asked him to pray for him for some material need. The Kotzker in turn asked why the visitor couldn’t just pray to God himself. When he answered that he didn’t know how to pray, the rebbe replied, “That’s the real problem!” This is the message I hear in this teaching by the Kotzker, a sort of (counter)revolutionary in his time.
If I were to read the Kotzker as closely as he reads this verse, I would ask two questions. One, did something change that now God “is able to help without angels” — was God really unable before, when the angels were there? And two, why does he pair “angels” and “any other reason,” as if they are in the same category? Both questions can be answered together.
The Kabbalah teaches that God gives constantly, to anyone and everyone, not because we have earned it but because it is God’s nature to give. But it is our job –and it is a job — to receive. Without the proper vessel, God’s blessings have nowhere to go. Sometimes angels (in whatever form) are the vessels, but apparently sometimes they are not only unnecessary but counterproductive. Sometimes, often, maybe even always according to the Kotzker, we need to get back to basics and clear the space between us and God so that we are each able to do what we do best.