The problem with asking angels to be intermediaries to הקב״ה is a slippery slope to עבודה זרה:
So I have a problem with singing ברכוני לשלום מאלכי השלום on Friday night. So I’ve started to skip that paragraph. But my son-in-law objected, what about this week’s parasha:
(I hate it when I’m proven wrong!)
This is not a new problem; there are a number of possible approaches.
One is the usual way we deal with evidence that contradicts our beliefs: just close our eyes and ignore it.
Rambam is Wrong
We could say that the Rambam is wrong about the halachah; the 13 Principles of Faith are not the last word in our understanding of the philosophical underpinings of Torah. See Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology. Maybe there is nothing wrong with asking an angel for a blessing.
Jacob is Wrong
We could argue that Jacob made a mistake here; the avot were human, after all. I would develop that in light of the midrash cited by Ramban:
Jacob is being too subservient to Esav, and his needing a blessing from שרו של עשו is a part of that.
It Was All a Dream
The Rambam himself may have an answer from his understanding of the whole event. He understands “angels” as “incorporeal intelligences”:
It used to be impossible to understand what “incorporeal intelligences” are, but we are fortunate enough to deal with them on a daily basis (“Siri, what’s the weather today?”, “To speak to customer service, say ‘representative’”), so it’s not such an alien idea.
Since they are incorporeal, they cannot be seen. So any physical description must be a prophetic vision:
The Ramban objects strenuously:
The Rambam would answer that prophetic visions can have physical impacts; Jacob’s limp does not need to mean an actual wrestling match.
This doesn’t quite answer the question, since presumably Jacob still has free will in his actions during the prophecy, so why does he ask for a blessing?
Another approach is that we don’t ask angels for blessings, we demand them. We can ask human beings for a bracha because humans have agency. The concept of תפילה, asking ה׳ for things, is theologically difficult, and we’ve dealt with that before. But once we allow that, a person can pray for themself as well as for others, and we can ask others to pray on our behalf. Our receipt of G-d’s providence is a reward for them.
But if angels do not have agency, how can we ask them to “pray” on our behalf? We can give orders to beings without free will; I can tell my dog, “sit!” and Alexa,“Tell me a joke!”. ברכוני לשלום is no different; if we accept that angels can listen, we can manipulate them by telling them what to do.
The problem is that this, “manipulating incorporeal, spiritual, intelligences” is pretty much the definition of כישוף, sorcery. See דרשות הר״ן יב and our discussion of the witch of En-Dor. That’s a capital crime, so I don’t like that answer.
Rabbi Shulman cited his brother that this case, Jacob and his איש, is different. He wasn’t asking an angel for a blessing in the sense of being an intermediary to invoke G-d’s providence; he was asking for information about the past:
Note that ברכתני is in the past tense, “I will not not let you go until you have blessed me”, not “until you bless me”. It’s a hint to the past.
I like this answer but I want to go deeper. This איש, which the text identifies as כראת פני אלקים, is clearly meant to be an angel, and it makes sense to see it in the context of the story as שרו של עשו. But midrashically, it is also identified as the יצר הרע:
(The idea that the יצר הרע, the psychological drive for the needs of the self—the id, in Freud’s terms—is the “guardian angel” of Edom is a fascinating idea that needs more development).
And this struggle was seen as a struggle with himself.
And the Rambam himself identifies the יצר הרע as an “angel”:
And so when he “asks for a blessing”, he’s really talking to himself. There’s no prohibition of praying to angels here.
This wrestling match is with his “evil twin” in multiple senses of the word. He has to overcome it before he faces the real Esav, and when he wins, he asks about the blessings that he had “stolen” twenty years before. The response is that his name is not יעקב but ישראל.
How do we put that together?
So the struggle with the איש is a struggle with the יצר הרע (in English we say “struggle with ones conscience” but that’s backwards: our conscience, our יצר טוב, should be on “our” side!). What is he struggling about? The following is my idea: What is Jacob doing at the Yabok River? When we look at the map, it’s clear that if Jacob wants to return to his father in Chevron, he should take the western route, not the eastern one. I think Jacob is intentionally taking the road to Seir, to confront Esav. He needs to deal with the brachot that he stole 20 years before. Jacob is supposed to be the paragon of אמת, but so far he’s been the trickster archtype.
He claims (רש״י, בראשית לב:ה) עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותרי״ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים but he has to demonstrate that.
Rashi sees a reflection of the stolen ברכות in all of Jacob’s interaction with Esav:
His message to Esav is that he (Jacob) never got the benefit of the brachot he stole; Esav was the one who was truly blessed.
But the fact that Esav says יהי לך אשר לך about the brachot implies that the brachot are the subtext behind what Jacob was offering him. This is also implied when Jacob calls his gift ברכתי, a rare term in תנ״ך for a gift.
So the irony is that the only way Jacob can keep the brachot is to give them away. He has to go from being יעקב, the trickster, to ישראל/ישורון, the straightforward one. And that’s why the יצר הרע is wrestling with him: it’s to stop him from crossing the Yabok. The יצר הרע says, “don’t go south, to Esav. Just head west, avoid the trouble. The brachot are yours (ours) by right; there’s no reason to negotiate with Esav over them.” And when he overcomes that, he earns the right to lose the name יעקב, and then go on to Chevron to take his place as one of the Avot.