December 20, 2019–
Do you believe in angels? Are you an angel? If you ask the average Jew one will tell you that angels are a something Christians believe in—not Jews. But they would be wrong. Perhaps it’s because of the stereotype of angels we’ve seen from medieval and renaissance art with angels as sexless creatures with big puffy white wings—the subject of theologians in the Middle Ages about how many of them could dance on the head of a pin.
But Judaism does speak about angels. At Friday night Shabbat services, we often sin Shalom Aleichem—a song of welcome for the Shabbat angels. It’s based on a story from the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) that says that on Friday evening when you come home from Temple, each Jew is accompanied by two angels. They look in the window of the house. If they see that the candles are lit, and the table is beautifully set for the Sabbath meal, and the family is happy, one angel says, “May next week be just like this.” But if they look in the window and the candles are not lit, and there is no Shabbat meal, and the family is fighting and upset, the other angel says, “May next week be just like this.” That’s why we sing in Shalom Aleichem: Barchuni l’shalom, malachei hashalom, “Bless us with peace, angels of peace.”
In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), Jacob’s sons were tending his flocks in Shechem but were late in returning. He sends Joseph to see if the brothers are ok. Remember it was in Shechem that the brothers (Simon and Levi) attacked, killing the king and its people. Certainly there must still be resentment towards Jacob’s sons among the locals and he’s worried. When Joseph arrives in Shechem he looks and he looks, but he can’t find them. He’s about to return home when suddenly the Torah tells us, Vayimtza-eyhu ish, he finds a person who steps forward out of nowhere and tells him that he happened to overhear the brothers saying that they were going to Dotan.
Now what are the chances that Joseph would bump into a person who happened to be eavesdropping and overheard the brothers say where they’re going next? Without this mysterious person, Joseph returns home. He doesn’t meet up with his brothers and get sold into slavery in Egypt and become Prime Minister of Egypt. The Jewish people don’t go down to Egypt, they don’t get the Torah at Sinai and they don’t have Passover—all because of this mysterious person who appears out of nowhere for a few minutes. According to the Midrash (Targum Yonatan) this person was the angel Gabriel in the likeness of a man.
The Jewish concept of an angel can be seen in the Hebrew word for angel, malach, which literally means “a messenger, or one who brings a message from God.” Most of the angels in the Bible are not described supernaturally. They seem to be anonymous people doing angelic things. Just as in the Bible, we all encounter angels of sorts—anonymous people who suddenly appear in our lives at the right time to help us. An oriental proverb expresses it well: “When you are ready to learn, a teacher appears.” When we’re open to receiving it, God’s message can be transmitted to us.
Take a moment to think about the angels in our lives. We all have them. Who are the angels in your life? Perhaps it’s someone who stepped out of the shadow of one’s own world to rescue you, to heal you, to comfort you, to touch your soul? Perhaps it was a doctor who not only practiced medicine but took your crisis to heart and was there for you day and night. Perhaps it was a friend who wouldn’t allow you to sink to the lowest point of despair. Is it perhaps a teacher, a mother, a father? Think about them. Think about the angels that were and are there for us.
Let us ask one more question: For whom do we serve as angels? When a friend, a family member, or even a stranger desperately needs a lifeline, are we ready to step forward and be that angel. Sometimes it’s the big things and sometimes it’s the little things. Sometimes it’s a 5-minute phone call to someone who can really use a friend; sometimes it’s visiting someone in the hospital. Sometimes it’s writing a check to charity. You never know what it’s going to mean for you to be an angel at that particular time.
Everyone has a purpose in life. We might not even be aware of it as we do it. We just need to be open to the fact that what we do, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, can have a profound effect upon others. Jacob’s dream-vision—with a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending—expresses the idea that there are many malachim, many angels always around us. May we acknowledge and be grateful for the angels in our lives and may we step up to be an angel for others.