Marc Chagall: Jacob and the Angels
Many years ago, I had a congregant who was battling a difficult form of cancer and was on home hospice.
I spent a lot of time with her. As the end of her life was drawing to a close, she had me sit close and told me she wanted to give me a gift. She then placed a tiny little pin in my hand: it was the figure of an angel.
Phyllis said: “this illness has been difficult, but I have been able to get through because of all the angels who have surrounded me in so many different ways, both physically and spiritually. I want you to have this special angel and keep it close when you feel you need some extra strength, extra protection, extra comfort.” Then she wrapped her hand over mine and held it close.
We don’t tend to think of angels as something that is part of our Jewish tradition. Perhaps in your mind you may imagine an angel as a glowing being, cloaked in white, wings flapping, with a golden, glistening halo. Or, perhaps you conjure up the darling image of Raphael’s cherubs or a little Precious Moments figurine. And if I were to ask you if Judaism believed in these beings, these angels, you might answer “absolutely not.”
Though our tradition suggests that we don’t have such an endearing appearance as Raphael’s winged babies, Jews and Judaism do believe in angels. The word for angel in our tradition is malakh. The word malakh more accurately means messenger. If God sends an angel to deliver a message to Lot and his family, that’s a malakh. If a king sends a treaty to a neighboring kingdom, delivered by hand by a royal messenger, he, too, is a malakh. And that’s where things get interesting—our translations sometimes make the decision for us, are we talking about angels or are we talking about human beings as messengers?
On Erev Shabbat, when we sing Shalom Aleichem, we mention the angels that help to bring in Shabbat. Angels in the Torah are either passive instruments of communication or active protagonists reflecting the power of God. They are incorporeal spirits projecting voice but not possessed of any physical dimension. The prophets Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah depict them as healers and warriors, and as direct interlocutors with God, pleading that God be merciful towards the Children of Israel. However, there is no direct explanation in the Torah for what they are or where they came from other than they are clearly superior to men but subordinate to God.
We see angels in many places in our Hebrew Bible, including in our Torah portion for this week, Vayeitzi. In this parasha, we have Jacob’s famous dream, when dreams of a ladder with angels going up and down. This is when God speaks to him for the first time. Twenty years later, Jacob encounters an angel again when he is about to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob wrestles with this messenger throughout the night. Jacob overcomes the angel, who then changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael.
Our tradition teaches us that angels have but one mission in their existence and then they return to God. Hence, the angels at the crossroads at Jacob’s ladder. One angel to wrestle with Jacob. One angel to wait with us in the dark and cold of the waiting room outside of our loved one’s operating room. One angel to help us catch our breath after we have a fight with our parents or our children. Angels are everywhere.
What they may look like and us having the ability to see them is not what matters. Knowing that they are here and there, that’s what can help us get through the day—can help us get through the hour.
My congregant Phyllis wanted to remind me that each of us becomes changed, Jacob was changed, when we open our hearts and souls to others. When we are able to act as an angel, we have the ability to transform lives and to become transform ourselves in the process. When we are able to let others act as angels for us in our lives, great transformation can result.
The word is malakh, a messenger of God—a creature that can be either human or Divine. See, the malakh distinction doesn’t matter; because even for the naysayers among us, we can all embrace our angelic nature and become messengers of God, doing God’s will and bringing peace on earth, especially as we get closer to these days between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, guideposts for Thanks and Miracles.
You can be the one to carry out God’s will, helping others, pursuing justice, lifting the downtrodden and clothing the naked. You can be the one to fill the belly of your brother in need. You can be someone’s angel. Though we can rest assured, that angels are often the ones that help lighten our load on even the heaviest of days, we all can be Malakhei Hashareit – Messengers from On High and we don’t need wings to do it.
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom