My mother had a collection of angels. It was kind of an accidental collection. She got a few small angel figurines, like the German Hummel figurines and other ceramic angels, and liked them, and soon it was a collection. I don’t think the figures had theological significance for her; she just liked them. When I think about angels, I usually think of their depiction in classical art—tall, often blonde, big white wings, neutral or benevolent expressions. Or I think of the popular depiction of cherubs—plump babies with tiny wings that would never get them off the ground, so that their being in the air is really inexplicable. I also feel like references to angels in popular culture are usually Christian. Comments after a death that the person has become an angel, or one that I think is really unhelpful, “God needed another angel,” are usually in a Christian context, though they’re unsupported by Christian theology. The idea that people may have a “guardian angel” is popular too, but I don’t hear it much from Jews. I haven’t heard Jews talk about angels much, especially in the context of our own lives.
There are angels throughout our tradition, though. In today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac, it is an angel who calls out to him and stops him just in time. In another Torah reading, Hagar and her son Ishmael are turned out into the wilderness by Abraham and Sarah. Hagar believes they are going to die, and it is an angel who comes to her and tells her not to be afraid. Then she sees a well, and she and Ishmael are saved. Other instances of angels are all over the Torah and the Bible: the angels who visit Abraham and save Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah; the angel God promises to send to lead the Israelites through the wilderness; and many more.
In the story of Jacob, whose name later becomes Israel, he encounters angels for the first time in a dream. All alone in the wilderness, having fled the murderous rage of his brother Esau, he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven. Going up and down the ladder are angels. The text doesn’t tell us what they look like, but apparently there are many of them.
Rabbi Shohama Wiener, in an article for the National Havurah Conference Newsletter, cites the medieval commentator Rashi on this passage. Rashi explains that some of the angels were the ones who escorted and protected Jacob as he traveled in the Promised Land. Other angels were the ones that protected and escorted Jacob when he journeyed outside the Promised Land. Why did they need to be different angels? According to Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrash, or stories that fill in gaps in the Torah text, “One angel never performs two missions” (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).
Rabbi Wiener writes, “What a fantastic thought! If one angel is only good for one mission, then there must be an infinite number of angels. Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is the paradigm for the Jewish person. What was true for Jacob should be true for us. We too must have countless numbers of angels.”
But while we may be willing to accept the idea of angels in our texts, or in folklore, can we relate to the idea of angels in our own lives? If we would like to encounter angels, or entertain the notion that there are angels in our lives, we may have to expand the picture in our head of what angels are like.
The word for angel, mal’ach, means “messenger.” Angels are messengers of God. But what does it mean to be a messenger of God? We see in the Torah that sometimes the messengers appear as people, and it’s not clear immediately that they are angels. It becomes evident because of the messages they are there to deliver.
Our sage Maimonides, about a thousand years ago, explained how expansive the concept of angels in our tradition is. In his Guide of the Perplexed, he writes that because angel also means messenger, “hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel….” He goes on to cite Psalm 104, where the elements of wind and fire are called angels. The word “angel” is sometimes used to describe a messenger sent by a human, or sent by God to save humans, he says, giving biblical prooftexts for these angelic roles. Even functions of our minds, like the imagination and the intellect, are sometimes described as angels by our tradition, as in Kohelet Rabbah 10:20 [concerning Eccl. 10:7]: “‘When one sleeps, [the body tells the soul what it did during the day]. The soul speaks to the angel, the angel to the k'ruv [cherub] [and the k'ruv to the seraph], who then brings it before God.’” Maimonides sees here “a clear statement that the human imaginative faculty is also called "angel," and that k'ruv is used for the intellectual faculty.”
Maimonides is teaching that we can learn from our Torah, our Bible and our sages that everything God does is done through angels. The angels don’t give their opinions or argue with God, but they are the mechanism by which God’s work is accomplished, whether they are natural forces, animals, ideas, instincts, ideals, or people.
There are spots in our liturgy when we invoke angels. In Shalom Aleichem, which we sing sometimes on Shabbat evenings, we invite angels to come in peace, bless us with peace, and depart in peace. At bedtime, some say a prayer that goes like this: “In the name of the Eternal, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; before me, Auriel; behind me, Raphael; and above my head the divine presence of God.” Rabbi Rachel Berenblat points out that Michael means “who is like God?” and so represents Wonder; Gavriel means “God’s strength,” representing Strength; Auriel means “God’s light,” representing Understanding; and Refael means “God’s Healing,” representing Comfort. So we pray to be surrounded by Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing, and God’s Presence as we sleep. The four qualities—Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing—are represented as angels. The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach wrote a beautiful tune for this bedtime blessing.
Maimonides cites another passage in Genesis Rabba, the collection of midrash on the book of Genesis, which reads: “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called [humans], when they have accomplished it they are angels.” He says, “Consider how clearly they say that the term ‘angel’ signifies nothing but a certain action, and that every appearance of an angel is part of a prophetic vision, depending on the capacity of the person perceiving it.”
Last January 26 in the evening, I went to Manhattan to participate in a shiva minyan after the death of a friend’s father. I was on the subway headed home, reading a rather esoteric book about finding a spiritual path through some of the most obscure Jewish laws, called The Boy on the Door on the Ox. At one stop two men got on the train. One was white, one black. They were dressed exactly the same, in padded khaki jackets, khaki pants, and work boots. Each carried a medium-sized bag, one of mesh, one of plastic. The white guy, who was a big guy with a Russian accent, said loudly as they entered the crowded car: “Aren’t these seats reserved for the handicapped?” I was sitting in one of the two seats that are indeed reserved for those with disabilities. The women next to me jumped up and was out of there. The white guy plopped down next to me, pretty much right up against me because, as I said, he was a pretty big guy. He smelled very strongly, mostly of alcohol.
His companion had a cane, and I moved to stand so that he could have my seat, but he gestured for me to stay seated, saying, “No no, it’s fine, I’ll stand.”
“You can have this seat,” I said. “I’ll get up.”
“No,” he said again. “I’m glad to have the choice to stand.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but okay. I remained seated.
They talked, and I read, but was distracted by their conversation, carried on fairly loudly. The guy next to me was saying stuff to his friend like, “You know why I don’t go to AA meetings? Because they said I shouldn’t hang around with alcoholics, ha ha ha.”
At some point he turned to me and said, “Don’t mind us. We’re from a different walk of life.”
I said, “I’m fine; we’re fine here.”
Then they started talking with me. The guy who was standing asked what I was reading, and I explained that it was a book about Jewish law and how it can inform your spiritual life. He said he’s Muslim, but “I don’t judge anyone. I think we have to accept each other.” I said I agreed.
It came out that the man next to me, with the Russian accent, whose name was Yuri, fought in the Russian army in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. At one point he commented that Jews run the world, saying, “Look at Israel. America will do anything for Israel.”
I said, “Or maybe it’s not that Jews run the world, but that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
He waved a hand. “Let’s put that aside.”
I said, “Let’s put the whole thing aside.”
“OK,” he said.
A bit later he mentioned that his grandfather was “a big-time cohein in Russia.”
That surprised me because of the earlier Jews-running-the-world comment. I said, “You’re Jewish?”
“Of course,” he said.
Sometime in the course of this encounter it came out that these two men had just gotten out of prison, as in they literally had just gotten off the bus from Sing Sing, which explained the identical khaki clothing and the bags they carried.
I got off the train before they did. I found out that Yuri’s friend’s name was Marcellus, wished them well, and said goodbye, and they travelled on.
I felt that I’d had a remarkable glimpse into a world entirely different from the one I live in, and it felt like a huge privilege. I imagine the woman who jumped up and moved away when they got on the train felt afraid, or at least nervous, but throughout the experience I felt completely safe and not the slightest bit afraid. In a way that I didn’t understand, I felt protected. The moment that really showed how safe I felt was when Yuri commented about Jews running the world, I immediately pushed back. Had I felt the least bit that the situation was potentially dangerous, I wouldn’t have risked a conflict like that. I know that many of you would not have cared about whether there would be a conflict in that situation, but that’s not how I am. For me, my willingness to go there meant that I felt entirely safe, which seemed strange, given the situation. After I got off the train, I thought, “That was amazing! And so weird! What was that?”
Then I found myself thinking, without wanting to detract in any way from Yuri and Marcellus’s humanity, that maybe they were angels. It was like the midrash said. “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called [humans], when they have accomplished it they are angels.” And if they were angels, messengers, there must have been some task they were there to accomplish. At that time, I was dealing with feeling fearful in a number of ways, working on that issue in my spiritual and psychological life. I think they were there to show me that there are things in life and in the world that I’m not afraid of, that other people are. Wherever you are, Yuri and Marcellus, I hope things are going okay, and I thank you for being angels to me, for giving me a message I needed at that time.
I believe that whether we realize it or not, we may encounter angels in our lives, and we may be angels. As with God, we don’t have proof one way or the other of the existence of angels, divine messengers. We have no obligation to believe that they are real. But they are present in our tradition, and considering them may at least help us understand what our spiritual ancestors who invoked angels, mal’achim, were talking about.
Like the word “God,” the word “angel” can have different meanings. Many of you have heard me talk about God and say, “in whatever way you understand that word ‘God,’ which may mean the guiding voice of conscience inside us, or community, or the natural world, or the cosmos, or our sense of awe, etc.” In this sense, this word “angel” may mean: the person who showed up in a crucial moment with exactly the help we needed, or the person who made us realize something important about ourselves that we hadn’t realized before, or the comforting dream that comes in our sleep during a troubled time in our lives; or the pet that brings us comfort and companionship when we need it.
It might help us to name these kinds of experiences as angelic because it brings a sense of holiness to our lives and becomes part of our connection to the universe, to something greater than ourselves, something that cares about us. It might help us to feel that we are not alone, not ever.
Our Torah reading today is the Akeidah, in which Abraham very nearly sacrifices his beloved son Isaac. We read that when they arrive at the appointed mountain, they leave behind the two servant boys and continue on, the two of them, together. But when Abraham ties Isaac to that altar and raises the knife to slaughter him, how alone must he have felt in that moment! How could he not? But then he finds that he is not alone. There is an angel, a messenger of God, that stops him at the last moment.
It’s true that there aren’t angels that stop everything bad from happening. I don’t know why that is. It’s one of the mysteries, and that’s not a satisfying answer. It doesn’t satisfy me, and probably doesn’t satisfy a lot of you. But it’s also true that sometimes someone or something, a person or a feeling or an idea or a dream or a thought or an element of nature, comes when it is needed and makes things better—a little better or a lot better. And it’s true that sometimes we have the opportunity to be someone else’s messenger of God.Let us look for those opportunities to be angels doing God’s work in the world. If we choose to, may we recognize where there are angels, mal’achim, messengers of God, in our lives. In the coming year, may we be surrounded by angels of Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing, with the Presence of the Divine Source of Life over our heads, when we sleep and when we are awake. Amen and L’Shanah Tovah.