A famous saying by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov goes: "The physical life of a Jew is a spiritual thing."

Sounds great, but what does it mean?

Two friends were hiking when they reached a fork in their trail. One path led up a mountain and had a signpost proclaiming, "To a Life of Spirituality." The second path led down into the valley and was marked, "To a Physical Life."

The friends hesitated before the two signs. Finally, they decided that Friend A would take the first path and Friend B would explore the second path. They agreed to meet up in twenty years and compare notes.

Friend A climbed the mountain. On its summit he found blue heavens, a spring-fed pool and a library of holy texts. Each morning he arose before dawn, immersed in his pristine mikveh, and spent the entire day meditating, praying and studying.

Friend B followed the second path to a bustling city. He married and fathered a dozen children. To support them he started a business which, despite (because of?) his scrupulous honesty, prospered greatly. He attained a position of influence in the community and soon his evenings and nights were taken up by communal affairs. On weekends he fundraised for a number of important charities for which he served as a trustee and to which he contributed generously from his own growing wealth. Still, he made time to do the kids' homework with them each evening, and never missed a PTA meeting or school event. His home was famous for its hospitality, and he delighted in personally serving his guests and listening to their stories.

After two decades in their respective lives, the two friends retrace their steps and meet at their parting point.

"So how's the spiritual life?" asks B.

"The spiritual life is great," answers A. "It's a long, difficult path, but if you persist and refuse to give up, you attain the goal."

"And what's the goal?"

"To escape the self. To transcend the ego. To lose the 'I' within the infinitude of the Divine. It took many, many years of study, meditation and prayer, but this morning I experienced, for the first time in my life, the sublime state of selflessness..."

"To transcend the self?" says Friend B. "Why, I haven't thought of my self in twenty years."

This week's Torah reading of Vayeitzei (Genesis 28-32) is bracketed by gangs of angels. There are two groups of angels in the beginning of Vayeitzei, and two groups of angels at the end of the Parshah.

Bear with us while we do some angel counting. It gets a little technical, but we'll get to the point in the end.

Vayeitzei tells the story of Jacob's twenty-year stay in Charan. It begins by describing how Jacob takes leave of the Holy Land, where he had spent the first half of his life secluded in "the tents of study." On his way out, he spends the night on Mount Moriah and dreams of a ladder extending from earth to the heavens, with "angels of G‑d ascending and descending upon it" (Genesis 28:12).

Angels come from heaven, right? So wouldn't it be more correct to say that the angels first descended and then ascended the ladder, instead of the other way around?

The commentaries explain: these were in fact two different groups of angels. While in the Holy Land, Jacob had angels that accompanied him. But Holy-Land angels have an aversion to non-holy places. Now that Jacob was leaving the Holy Land, a different group of angels was going to take over. What Jacob saw in his dream was this "changing of the guard." The Holy-Land angels ascended the ladder to the heavens, and the non-Holy-Land angels descended to take over.

We then read how Jacob arrived in Charan, shepherded Laban's flocks, married Leah and Rachel, fathered eleven sons and a daughter, and became "exceedingly successful" in amassing a fortune in "sheep, maids and servants, camels and donkeys."

Veyeitzei ends with Jacob's journey back home. As he re-crosses the border from non-holy to holy territory, he again "encounters angels of G‑d." Once again there are two camps of angels. This time, however, we don't find one group giving way to the other — they both remain with Jacob (Genesis 32:2-3; Rashi, ibid.).

Our own lives, too, include two lands: a holy land and a non-holy land, a sacred territory and a mundane territory, a spiritual domain and a material domain. Our lifespan includes years in the "tents of study" and years of raising and providing for a family. Our weeks include Shabbat and work days. Our days include hours of prayer and learning, and hours in the office, home and market place.

Angels accompany us everywhere we go. Our sages tell us that an angel is created with every good deed we do. Spiritual deeds create "Holy-Land angels." Good deeds in the material realm create "non-Holy-Land angels."

At first, in the beginning of our journey, the two camps of angels inhabit different, even mutually exclusive, planes of our lives. Spirituality seems to preclude involvement with material things. Material involvements seem to preclude spiritual growth. When the time comes to cross over into a more material realm, our spiritual angels balk at the frontier. "Go on, ahead," they say. "These guys will take care of you. We'll wait here until you return."

But when we return after a lifetime of accomplishment we find that our non-Holy-Land angels remain with us. This time, there's no changing of the guard. This time, the two battalions of angels march in tandem to herald our triumphant homecoming. For unlike their xenophobic Holy-Land brethren, the non-Holy-Land angels are perfectly at home in the Holy Land.

For in the final analysis, the physical life of a Jew is a very spiritual thing.