Imagine that a person invites guests over for dinner. He introduces the guests to his family, sits down at the table, welcomes them—and then not three minutes later, before the first morsel of food is served, the guests are shown the door and asked to leave.

Our first reaction would be to assume that the guests did or said something so inappropriate or irreverent that they forfeited their seat at the table. But that was not the case. They even complimented the hosts. Hard to imagine!

What if I were to tell you that this happens in many thousands of homes every week of the year?

Why can't they stay?We all invite two angels – one good one and one "bad" one – into our home every Friday night. The Talmud (Shabbat 119a) relates that two angels escort us home from the synagogue on Friday night. When they find our homes brimming with light and that unique Shabbat aroma, and see us and our families wearing and looking our Shabbat best, the good angel declares that they should find the same on the following week, and the bad angel is forced to respond "Amen." If, G‑d forbid, our homes do not reflect the Shabbat atmosphere, the bad angel wishes the same for the next week and the good angel must respond "Amen."

It is in their honor that we sing the Shalom Aleichem hymn on Friday night (click here for the full text). In this hymn we wish these angels peace, we welcome them, we ask them to bless us, and then we bid them farewell:

Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High...

May your coming be in peace angels of peace, messengers of the Most High...

Bless me with peace, angels of peace...

May your departure be in peace, angels of peace...

Why can't they stay?

While different answers are given to this question,1 I would like to share a fascinating answer I heard, given by the Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom.

In the 32nd chapter of Genesis we read how Jacob, after running away from his father-in-law Laban to leave Haran, was confronted with the fact that his estranged brother Esau was approaching with an army of 400 men. Last Jacob heard, Esau wanted to kill him. This is not the Canaan welcome wagon. Jacob prepares for war and for peace. He crosses his family over the border and then for some inexplicable reason, he sneaks back across the river.2 There Jacob is confronted by a man. The consensus of the commentaries is that this man was an angel who represented Esau.

"Jacob remained by himself and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn"—Genesis 32:25.

Being alone is the highest level of congress with the AlmightyOur sages describe this confrontation as a battle for eternal moral superiority. But that is not my interest right now. I'm interested in the fact that Jacob was alone during this time. The Chizkuni, a medieval biblical commentator, even berates Jacob's children for allowing their father to enter such a precarious situation alone and opines that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve, which resulted from this encounter, was intended as a punishment to the tribes for opting for a bed on a night when one of history's great conflicts was to take place.

But the Slonimer Rebbe takes a different approach. He teaches that being alone is the highest level of congress with the Almighty. Earlier in Genesis (28:12-15) we read about Jacob's greatest dream. He saw "a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G‑d were ascending and descending upon it." G‑d spoke to Jacob during the time when there were no angels—after the angels ascended, before they descended again; the terrestrial angels had returned to the heavens and the celestial angels had not yet arrived on earth. That was the holiest moment. Ultimately, we are greater than the angels. The acme of sanctity can be found in private.

Similarly, Jacob was not with his sons or his entourage when his great struggle took place. He was alone.

On Yom Kippur (the holiest time of year), the high priest (the representation of the greatest holiness on earth) entered the Holy of Holies chamber of the Holy Temple (the most sacred space on earth). Regarding this entry the Torah tells us:

"No person would be in the Tent when [the high priest] came to offer atonement in the Holy, until his exit"—Leviticus 16:17.

At this most consecrated moment, the high priest found himself alone with the Almighty.

The verse uses the term kodesh to describe "the Holy." Another usage for the same root is kiddushin, or marriage. After a couple is married, they are required to go to a room to be alone—yichud. Yichud means secluded, singular. One can be alone by virtue of having no one else around; yet alone can also mean singular or special or unique.

A beautiful Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 77:1) makes this point to us.

"Regarding G‑d it states: 'And G‑d alone will be exalted on that day' (Isaiah 2:11). And we find similar language regarding Jacob: 'And Jacob remained alone.'"

"But please forgive us if we ask you to leave—right now we want to be alone with G‑d!"On Shabbat we want to be alone with the Almighty, and ask to be excused from the angels. "Holy Angels!" we exclaim. "We appreciate so much that you came to our homes, we cherish your presence and we treasure your blessings—come again. But please forgive us if we ask you to leave—right now we want to be alone with G‑d!"

In most prayer-books, there is a custom to recite two verses from the Book of Psalms immediately after the Shalom Aleichem:

"He will charge His angels for you, to protect you in all your ways"—Psalms 91:11.

"G‑d will guard your goings and comings from now and forever"—Psalms 121:8.

Why do we juxtapose these two verses? The first reminds us that G‑d sends us angels, but the goal is not the messenger, but alone-ness with the Almighty—ultimately, we rely on G‑d alone to guard our goings and comings.