Once upon a time there was a great and mighty king who had a wise and talented son. One day, the king summoned the prince to him. "My dear child," said the king, "I must send you on a difficult and dangerous mission. In the far reaches of my kingdom there is an uncivilized land inhabited by a barbaric people. The ways of wisdom are alien to them, nor do they know kindness or justice or compassion. It will be your task to teach them and educate them, to uncover the spark of humanity that lies buried deep within their coarse existence. You must excavate that spark, cultivate it and feed it, so that their lives are transformed and their land is redeemed and restored to my enlightened kingdom."

"But father," objected the prince, "if I go to that horrible place, then I, too, shall become like them. My soul will be tainted by their grossness. My light will be overwhelmed by their darkness and succumb to it."

"That is why, my child," said the king, "you must leave your soul here, in the royal palace, for safekeeping. We will guard it and nourish it with wisdom and light until you return from you mission."

"How, then," persisted the prince, "shall I fulfill my mission? What can a soulless body possibly achieve?"

"Your soul shall remain here," explained the king, "even as it ventures forth with you to the land of darkness. For also in that debased place, your soul will always know its true home. Your body may forget, your heart may wander, even your mind may blunder in the caverns of folly. But your soul will always remember..."

Rabbi DovBer, the famed "Maggid of Mezeritch" who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov as the leader of the Chassidic movement, passed away in 1772, on the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.1 The Shabbat before his passing was Shabbat Vayishlach — the Shabbat on which the Torah portion of Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) is read. On that Shabbat, Rabbi DovBer's disciples gathered around his bed to hear words of Torah from the mouth of their master.

Vayishlach begins by relating that "Jacob sent angels to his brother Esau." Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, states that these were malachim mamash, "actual angels." (The Hebrew word malachim means both "messengers" and "angels"; thus, the verse could also have been more prosaically translated, "Jacob sent messengers...") The Maggid, speaking to his disciples on the last Shabbat of his physical life, revealed a deeper meaning in Rashi's words. Rashi is saying — said the Maggid — that it was only the mamash of the angels, their "actuality," that Jacob dispatched to Esau. The spiritual essence of the angels, their souls, remained with Jacob.

Two hundred years later, at a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) held on Shabbat Vayishlach of 1972, the Lubavitcher Rebbe probed the meaning of the Maggid's enigmatic teaching.

Asked the Rebbe: Isn't the entire point of sending angels to Esau that this was a mission that required a great infusion of spirituality to accomplish? Indeed, the Chassidic masters explain that this was a mission of cosmic proportions. Esau was the embodiment of the primordial world of Tohu, a world of such boundless divine energy that its "vessels" shattered, scattering sparks of holiness to the farthest, lowliest, most debased stratum of creation — our own physical and material world. This is why our world contains such volatile energies — energies more lofty, but also more corruptible, than anything else in G‑d's creation. It was Jacob's aim to excavate and redeem these "sparks of holiness" from their exile and imprisonment within the coarseness of Esau.

No ordinary messengers could be equal to this mission. Jacob sent his angels, the most lofty and spiritual forces at his disposal, to attempt the redemption of Esau. Why, then — asked the Rebbe — would Jacob keep the loftiest and most spiritual part of his angels with himself?

But the fact that the angels' souls remained with Jacob — explained the Rebbe — does not mean that they did not participate in the mission to Esau. Your body can only be in one place at a time: if it's in Kansas City, it can't be in Seattle. If it wants to be in Seattle, it has to get on a plane and fly there, and having done so, it won't be in Kansas City anymore. Your soul, however, is a spiritual being, which means that it is not confined to the grid of spacetime. Your soul can be in two places at the same time. Your soul can go to Seattle without ever leaving Kansas City.

So only the "actuality" of Jacob's angels were sent off. The souls of Jacob's angels remained with their master. And it was precisely because they remained with Jacob even as they engaged Esau that they could fulfill their mission.

We are on a mission. Our master has dispatched us to the farthest, most forsaken lands of his kingdom to search out sparks of holiness, to dig them out of the coarseness in which they are buried, to raise them up and restore them to his crown.

Our body, being a body, must leave its father's home to go to these faraway lands. For such is the law that governs our actual self: to be somewhere else you must go there, which means that you can't be here anymore.

Our soul, however, remains in the royal palace. It descends into the physical world, it enters material life, it engages and grapples with the coarseness and the darkness and the folly, but it remains in the royal palace. And it is precisely because it remains with its sender that it can venture forth and accomplish its mission.