Yes Moshe there are angels!

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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

As we pause to celebrate Thanksgiving and spend some time appreciating the blessings that fill our lives, I want to share with you the wisdom of my favorite Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel:

We are all infatuated with the splendor of space and the grandeur of things that fill the space we live in. “Thing” is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts. In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is “thinghood”, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. Things of space are not fireproof. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is truly eternal in time. What we plead against is man’s enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things. (Based upon the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as expressed in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man)

This Thanksgiving, take the time to appreciate the moment.

Jews and Alien Life Forms

It was widely reported earlier this week that the Vatican has called in experts to study the possibility of extraterrestrial alien life and its implication for the Catholic Church.

“If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound,” said Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory. Some theologians fear that the integrity of the biblical creation story, which many see as a text that asserts that life only exists here on our planet, will be called into question if alien life is found. And, if the creation story – the first story in the Bible – is undermined, what happens to the rest of the religious world?

Fortunately, for those of us in the Jewish world, the discovery of alien life would only reinforce the Jewish view of creation, God, and the mysteries of the universe. Many of you know that the kabbalistic view of creation supports the notion that God created many worlds before creating our own. In addition, while the biblical creation story makes no reference to life existing anywhere but on our planet, it does not dismiss the possibility that God created life elsewhere. The Talmud, referring to an inhabited place known as Maroz which is mentioned in the Book of Judges, goes so far as to embrace the notion that life exists elsewhere. Maroz, according to the ancient rabbis, is a star.

So, as the sun sets in a few hours and we begin Shabbat, take a moment to gaze into the heavens. Perhaps, somewhere up there, there is life. Are they welcoming in Shabbat? This, we cannot answer. We can, however, take comfort in the fact that our tradition will not in any way be undermined or called into question if a real E.T. is discovered. We will simply have to make more room for our alien friends around the Shabbat table.

Shabbat Shalom!

A Genuine Condemnation?

As Jews, we know what it is like to be blamed for the crimes committed by a single Jew.  Just look at the anti-semitic rants that came after we all learned about the destructive crimes of Bernie Madoff.  Whether we like it or not, the behavior of one Jew does indeed affect us all.

The Muslim-American community has been struggling with this issue for some time.  As a result of the horrific murders committed by a Muslim-American soldier at Fort Hood, there is much discussion about the role that radical Islamic individuals and teaching played in this massacre.  Many Islamic organizations, including one of the largest here in America – The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) – have condemned the shootings at Fort Hood.  But, my problem is, when we look closely at organizations like ISNA, we cannot help but question the sincerity of these condemnations.

In the sermon below, I ask: is ISNA’s condmenation genuine?  As a Jew, I do not like the idea of blaming Islam for the actions of one Muslim.  However, when the Islamic organizations that rush to condemn have quiet and not so quiet affiliations with extremist ideas and individuals, I have no choice but to question.

Please note, after the 2 videos, you will find “footnotes” that accompany the sermon.

“Footnotes”

The article I refer to at the beginning of the sermon about my experience after September 11, 2001: http://209.123.42.130/news/2002/020618_conference.asp

ISNA’s condemnation of Fort HoodsShooting and information on ISNA: http://www.isna.net/articles/News/Muslim-American-Organizations-Denounce-Shooting-Incident-at-Fort-Hood.aspx; http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/groupProfile.asp?grpid=6178; http://www.investigativeproject.org/1076/isnas-ties-to-terror; detailed article prepared by the “Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report” — an internet newsletter that monitors the fundamentalist Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood: http://globalmbreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/20080127_extremism_and_isna.pdf

Fort Hood suspect’s terror ties: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/us/15hasan.html; http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2009/11/did-nidal-malik-hasan-shout-allah-akbar-before-opening-fire-at-fort-hood.html

Badawi’s online statement and information on him: http://www.islamonline.net/livedialogue/english/Browse.asp?hGuestID=ROEz8t; http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/individualProfile.asp?indid=1009

Information on Dar-al-Hijrah Islamic Center and Anwar al-Awlaki: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/blogging-imam-who-knew-fort-hood-attacker-and-911-hijacker-goes-silent/; http://frontpagemag.com/2009/11/13/maj-hasan’s-attempted-romance-with-al-qaeda-by-jamie-glazov/; http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/1109/p99s01-duts.html; http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-na-awlaki12-2009nov12,0,808357.story

Information on Wahhabism: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/gulf/wahhabi.htm; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/wahhabism.html; http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ODgwMGNkNzM0MTNiMWMyZGM3ZWJlYTYxYzczNGNhMmU=

NY Times article on Mattson: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/us/09muslim.html

Fort Hood From An Israeli’s Point Of View

Click link below to visit a great blog: Israeli Soldier’s Mother:

http://israelisoldiersmother.blogspot.com/2009/11/attack-on-fort-hood-understood-in.html

Sunday November 8, 2010

Last night, we all ate dinner at my daughter’s house. It was supposed to be a quiet Friday night with only two of my five children home (Elie, my soldier, and my youngest daughter). It was going to be quiet and lonely in some ways. When you are used to having five children grace your table, there’s a lot of noise. Then one got married, one went to the army, one went to yeshiva, and suddenly, there is an almost unbearable quiet.

It’s silly, of course. Don’t most families in America have two children and feel their lives are full? But I guess life is indeed one of perspectives and the sudden emptying of my house and Shabbat table has come as a bit of a surprise. Still, they come home enough that we are rarely with only two children, but also rarely all five (six, including my son-in-law; seven, eight, or nine including the three “children” I have adopted to my heart and family).

My youngest son is almost always here, and yet, irony of irony, this Shabbat he had to go away to a school weekend and interview, perhaps to transfer there next year as he enters high school. So, when my daughter invited us, I was thrilled. We would still be only four on Saturday lunch, but Friday night, we would be six.

I sat with my daughter and talked, waiting for everyone to come back from synagogue. And, when they did, my middle son walked in with a bag of presents – a birthday surprise for me. I hadn’t exactly forgotten it was my birthday, but somehow this year it seems less relevant, less significant.

It was wonderful to see him, to hug him. My youngest daughter made wonderful pictures; my oldest made a fudge cake desert. There are moments in your life where you know it can’t get any better.

It was a long walk back and as my youngest daughter proudly carried the helium balloon, she was stopped repeatedly, “Whose birthday is it?” they would ask with a smile and I quickly answered, “MINE!”.

There is no shame in being a year older, no sadness, no fear. I love each day, each week, each year God blesses me with life and these children. Mine! I said, my life, my children, my balloon, my birthday!

For part of the way home (it’s a long walk), I ended up walking next to Elie as my husband walked slowly with a friend we met along the way. It was nice because it gave us an opportunity to talk. Amazingly enough, as aware as Elie is of so much that happens here in the Middle East, he had heard nothing of the attack on Fort Hood, Texas.

He listened as I gave all the information that I knew. We talked of how it was possible and Elie could easily understand. “Ima, they have to go on a ship to get to the war zone. They’ll be armed when they get there. Why would they need arms there?”

“You have a gun,” I pointed out. So often, I am the petulant one; the childish one wishing things were different faced with Elie’s understanding and realism. He’s right, of course. And yet, I wanted the soldiers to have been armed, to have stopped these murderers before so many were hurt.

There was no reason for them to have been armed. They were safe there, among their own…or should have been.

“How long does it take to fire so many bullets?” I asked Elie. “Almost 50 people were shot and either killed or wounded.”

“Not long,” Elie answered. Not long at all.

Elie was not surprised to hear that the shooter had an “Arabic-sounding” name. He raised an eyebrow when I told him there were reports that the terrorist had screamed out “Allah Akbar” – “God is great” before opening fire.

He raised his brow again and gave this knowing smile when I told him the Americans didn’t think it was terrorism, “they never do,” he said.

That isn’t true – not really. But isn’t it funny that this is his reaction. We jump to assume terrorism here. The police will quickly try to calm us when something happens but only after they are sure. And in America, the opposite. It isn’t terrorism until all other motives are ruled out.

We understand this shock, this pain, this reality here in Israel. It was this way after 9/11 too. We looked with sadness to the Americans as they reacted as we have.

How could this have happened? How could anyone do such a thing? Innocent lives? Why? We live this reality in Israel and after so many decades, we know there is no answer except hatred and an evilness within a culture that supports the idea that it is acceptable to murder in the name of some elusive, self-serving goal.

May God bless the memories of the victims of Fort Hood, Texas. May He send comfort to the families and may they know no more sorrow.

May the day come when hatred gives way to compromise and acceptance of values and religions different from your own.

Honoring our Soldiers

Today we stop to honor our veterans – those who have stood up to protect and defend our nation. Yesterday, we were invited into the military world as the soldiers and the families of Fort Hood gathered together to mourn the loss of 13 men and women who were murdered by a fellow soldier who, as we are learning, embraced the extremist views of radical Islam. As we witnessed the memorial service on the television, radio, or internet we were reminded of the dangers our soldiers face every day. Before last week’s attack, we could not imagine that our troops would be in danger here in the U.S. But, we now know that they face enemies even at home. From the words and images that were broadcast to us from yesterday’s service, it is evident that this new reality seems to bring the men and women of our military closer and, in turn, makes them stronger, more determined.

During yesterday’s memorial service, a powerful verse from Isaiah was read: “Then I heard the voice of God saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8) At the end of the service, the powerful roll call took place. The names of soldiers were called out. Those present called out that they were “here”. When the names of the murdered soldiers were called out – there was silence. But, in that silence, you could almost hear the voice of another soldier, standing up and reciting words similar to those of Isaiah: “Here am I! Send me! Send me in their place! It will be my honor!”

The soldiers of Fort Hood and the men and women of our military who are spread out all over the world are continuing the bravery, selflessness, and honor that epitomize the members of our armed forces. Many of you have served in the military or have loved ones who served. Today, we thank each of you, all of our veterans, for all that you have given to make our country stronger.

Veterans’ Day has become a day off from school and a day for sales and bargains. Hopefully, the tragedy at Fort Hood has forced us to refocus and reconsider what this day is all about. Those who put everything on the line to preserve all that we hold dear deserve our thanks and praise. Take the time today to reach out to a veteran and thank him or her. If they can say “Send me!” the least we can do is say “Thank you!”.