Many people feel that angels are not a part of Judaism. As I talked about last Friday night, this is simply not true.
In last week’s Torah portion, we read about our patriarch, Jacob, dreaming of angels going up and down a ladder that linked heaven and earth. There are many other examples of angels in Torah and other biblical literature. Here are just a few examples:
- Cherubim with flaming swords guard the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve are banished (Gen. 3)
- An angel arrives to tell Abraham he and Sarah will have a child (Gen. 18)
- An angel stays Abraham’s hand when he is about to sacrifice that child (Gen. 22)
- It is an angel who saves Hagar and Ishmael in the desert (Gen. 21)
- An angel appears to Moses out of the burning bush (Ex. 3)
- An angel announces to Samson’s mother to be that she is to have an exceptional child (Judges 13)
Angels often appear in the Apocryphal literature (post-biblical writings). For example, there is mention of the angel Ram’amiel who is in charge of thunder, Ra’asiel who is in charge of earthquakes, and Shalgiel, who is in charge of snow. The Dead Sea Scrolls make mention of angels of light and an angel of darkness.
The rabbis of the Talmud were concerned about the idolatrous practices of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans who dominated the Jews at the time. It was not unheard of for people to worship angels. There are some who suggest that this might very well have been going on in the ancient Jewish community. Therefore, the rabbis worked hard to downplay the role of angels. Rabbi Judah teaches in the Talmud that God wishes to be directly addressed: “If trouble comes upon someone, let him cry not to Michael or Gabriel, but let him cry unto Me” (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 9:12) As Jews recite each year during Passover: “And the Lord brought us out from Egypt–not by an angel, not by a seraph (fiery angel), and not by a messenger, but the Holy One alone…”
Another Talmudic statement makes it clear that the rabbis were trying to downplay the role of angels: “Israel is dearer to God than the angels; for Israel’s praise is not confined to stated hours as that of the angels. Israel pronounces the name of God after two words: ‘Hear, Israel’; the angels after three: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’ Israel begins the song of praise on earth and the angels in heaven chime in”
The rabbis explain that angels are not too fond of humanity. There is a rabbinic legend that suggests that the angels tried to stop God from creating human beings. The angels argued that people will commit offenses against truth and peace. But, God is determined and crushes truth to the ground and creates human beings in spite of the weaknesses that the angels warned Him about. (Genesis Rabbah 8:5)
Despite the rabbis desire to downplay the angels, angels did not disappear. In the bedtime Shema, we asks for the protection of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Each one of these angels has a certain guiding function: Michael is the commander in chief of angelic host and the guardian of Israel, Raphael is the healing angel, Gabriel is the master of courage, Uriel is the angel of light. Furthermore, the Rabbis teach that two angels, one good and one bad, follow us home on Shabbat. If all is prepared–candles, challah, wine–the good angel exclaims: “May it be this way next Shabbat as well” and the bad angel responds, “Amen.” If the house is not prepared, the bad angel exclaims: “May it be this way next Shabbat” and the good angel, in spite of himself, says, “Amen.”(Shabbat 119b). And, in the Midrash, the rabbis teach us that angels are constantly being created by God: ”Every day God creates a legion of angels, they sing before Him, and then disappear.” (B’reishit Raba 78)
Medieval Jewish commentators suggest that angels are necessary because they perform tasks that are beneath the dignity of God’s personal involvement. Maimonides teaches us that angels have no bodies and are not affected by physical limitations. They are not equal in their existence, some being below others and owing their existence to those above them, and all of them owe their existence to the power of G-d and to His goodness. Maimonides asserts that there are 10 levels of angels.
For those who like Kabbalah – each sefirot – each realm – has an angel. Midrash and Zohar state, “There is no blade of grass that does not have a ‘constellation’ or ‘mazal’ over it, telling it to grow.” Angels are seen as the souls of the stars. The Zohar teaches that every star in the universe has a name, and the Midrash indicates that the names of the stars correspond to the names of the different angels. It must be pointed out that the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, prohibits the concept of astrology. However, it is typical to wish one “mazal tov” at a festive occasion. We often think this means “good luck”. But, if you consider what was just discussed, it did express a wish that the stars and planets align in such a way that brings good things to someone celebrating a life event. The Talmud does not like this expression and states: “Ein Mazal L’Yisrael” or “there is no Mazal for the Jewish people.” This means that the Jewish people as a whole were lifted above the “power” of stars because they had God and Torah.
As Judaism developed over the centuries, the role of angels continued to decline. Reb Chayim Volozhin (1749-1821) stated: ”Angels require the influence of man. They sing their praises of God upon our reciting it (they say ‘holy, holy, holy’ when we tell them to), also if a man messes up they are accordingly harmed.” His son Reb Yitzchak taught that the angels that appear in Jacob’s dream, the ones that go up and down the ladder, they go up and down because Jacob has the power to send them up and down. Reb Chayim says, “There isn’t within the power of any angel to independently do a thing. He can’t open his mouth without the breath of Israel’s sanctity motivating him.” Angels respond to us. They need us.
What do we believe about angels? It is hard enough to figure out what we believe when it comes to God. Now, we toss angels into the mix! But, as we read about angels in the Torah, as we sing about angels in our Kabbalat Shabbat service (Shalom Aleichem is all about welcoming the angels of Shabbat), we must accept that our tradition includes angels and, at the same time, attempt to understand what they are. Shalom Aleichem teaches us that angles are messengers of God. What does this mean? What purpose do these angels serve? Throughout our history, angels seem to be able to take us to a better place. They seem to provide us with comfort, srength, security. They can take us closer to God and connect us to our spirituality. At the same time, they have no power over us. It is up to us to discover them and bring them into our lives. And once we do, we can follow them, feel them, journey with them.
Shalom Aleichem itself often serves as an angel to me. It carries me out of the stress of the week and into the joys of Shabbat. This leads me to believe that angels need not be creatures, but also “things”: music, poetry, a special place or moment – something or someone that can evoke a feeling that brings joy, comfort, spirituality. This mean you and I have the potential to be angels! Certainly there is someone in your life who brings out the best in you. If not, you need an angel – someone, or something, that allows you to tap into the incredible holy energy that does exist out there – energy that we struggle to experience on a regular basis. This energy is God. And the people and things that often help us access this energy – these are our angels.
So yes, Moshe, there are angels! Go and discover one today.