January 5, 2006
Angels in America
Angels are everywhere in America these days, and a lot of them are tacky. When I was growing up you saw them once a year, adorning Christmas trees. Since then they've swarmed across the thin border that divides religious imagery from kitsch. Gift shops stock angel T-shirts, angel bookends, angel-print pillowcases and little angel wings to attach to your pet chihuahua.
Rarely a week goes by without an angel-themed book on the best seller list, and Hollywood has fallen into step with shows like "Touched by an Angel," "Joan of Arcadia" and this season's "The Book of Daniel."
But this week's cover story celebrates not make-believe angels, but real live ones.
Jews and angels, it turns out, have a complicated relationship. We borrowed the notion from the Sumerians, the good folks who clued us in on the serpent, the Flood, the ark and writing. The Hebrew word for angel is malach, which means "messenger." In Jewish lore, these messengers shape-shift between the godlike and the human, not just from era to era, but from reference to reference. In Genesis, Hagar encounters an angel, then later refers to "the Lord" who spoke to her. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but an angel of heaven intervenes to stay his hand.
In other passages, angels take the form of men, visiting Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac; then visiting Sodom to warn Lot to flee before destroying the city. In one of the most physical manifestations, an angel wrestles with Jacob, leaving him wounded. Reading the Bible, you are left with no clear notion of the Hebrew angels: Are they flesh and blood or the voice of God? Are they dreamed of or three-dimensional? The biblical notion of the angel is amorphous, open to argument, hardly the stuff of T-shirts.
In post-biblical literature, angels multiply. Scholars attribute this in part to the influence of other wisdom traditions on Jewish thought in Hellenistic times. By the Middle Ages, Jewish magic and angels were intertwined. By one estimate, the world of medieval Jewish mysticism counted as many as 496,000 angels.
"Houses and cities, winds and seasons," writes Joshua Trachtenberg in "Jewish Magic and Superstition" (Penn, 2004), "each speck of dust underfoot ... no thing in nature exists independently of its ... heavenly 'deputy.'"
Christians got angels from Jews. We meanwhile have all but sloughed off our belief in heavenly intermediaries. With the exception of smallish sects, most Jews see angels not as guardians from above, but as metaphor for the power of our souls, something akin to what that great Chasid Abraham Lincoln posited in his inauguration speech when he spoke of, "the better angels of our nature."
This special issue of The Jewish Journal recognizes and celebrates those better angels.
Originally we were taken with the idea of the lamed vavniks, the 36. In Jewish lore, these are the 36 people who walk the earth anonymously, pure souls engaged in holy work, whose unique goodness is all that stands between humankind and God's harsh judgment.
But -- here's the truth -- we knew we wouldn't have enough room in this issue for 36 profiles. The cruel realities of ad pages knocked 26 righteous people off the list.
Ten was the next-best number, because 10 was the number of decent people Abraham offered to find in Sodom to save the town from God's wrath. Ten people -- in this context we chose to consider families as one -- going about their lives in humble goodness could indeed change the fate of a People, not to mention a wicked city.
We know that other publications produce annual year-end lists of The 10 Most Powerful or The 10 Hottest New Stars or The 10 Richest. More power to them. But we saw no point in telling people who already know they're rich, or gorgeous, or powerful, that they are.
The people we chose to profile inside undoubtedly know that they are making a positive difference in people's lives. They know they are doing so not because that's their job, not because they have to, but because in helping others, they attend to the better angels of their nature. Some people may buy ceramic angels, and others might believe that angels watch out for them, but these people are compelled to intervene to improve the lives of others -- to be the angels that humans have long imagined should exist.
Consider Jennifer Chadorchi, a 20-something Beverly Hills resident who has provided thousands of homeless men and women with food and social services. Or Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen, whose Pico-Robertson home serves as a collection and distribution center for goods to needy families.
Or consider Saul Kroll, 87, a retiree who volunteers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center 35 to 40 hours per week. He's been doing that since 1987, logging some 24,400 hours. Sometimes he takes a day off to drive his 90-year-old neighbor to the doctor to receive cancer treatments. "Don't tell someone, 'OK, call me if you need help,'" Kroll says. "Just go on over and help."
Now, that's an angel.