November 8, 2013
Shabbat Shalom to the Angels Among Us
This Shabbat, Jews all over the world will read the Torah portion Vayetze. It's a great portion - they all are, of course, but this one really is especially rich. We meet Leah and Rachel, and watch as their father's trickery ensures Jacob will marry both. We celebrate the births of the children for whom the Twelve Tribes of Israel will be named. We even learn the origin of the custom of tithing.
But the most dramatic and compelling moment? It's got to be this one, recorded in Genesis 28:12:
Jacob "had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground, and its top reached to the heavens; and angels of God were going up and down on it."
Isn't that beautiful? And - for a people that values rationality and intellectualism, a people who just won nearly half of the Nobel Prizes (!), a people that's often uncomfortable embracing the mythical and the supernatural - it's also pretty challenging. Do Jews really believe in angels?
Judaism is actually full of angels; not only do angels appear in the Torah and later books of the Bible, but our ancient rabbis shared countless stories of God's retinue of angels, their functions, their deeds. According to Jewish tradition, God even sends special angels to accompany each of us throughout Shabbat; our holy day is made all the more sacred by their presence. The Shabbat song "Shalom Alecheim" serves to welcome these angels; its opening words mean "Peace unto you...angels of the Most High."
No matter how committed we may be to rationalism, to science, to reason and to proof, I think everyone can find meaning in the idea of angels. The Hebrew word for angel is "malach," which can also be translated as "messenger." Angels are envisioned as messengers of God, partners with God, those who do God's work and carry out God's will.
And Jacob's dream suggests that these angels may not necessarily be otherworldly. After all, Jacob saw angels ascending as well as descending; according to Jewish tradition, this means that some of God's angels come not from the exalted heavens but from our very ordinary earth. Even here, even among human beings, we can find angels - people who do God's work and carry out God's will.
Don't we all know some angels? The preschool teacher who carries our toddler around all morning when he's having trouble separating from us. The pediatrician who stays late when our child is sick, or who calls after hours to see how she's doing. The coach who sees our tween not just as a player, but as a unique and special individual. And when we're exhausted after a long day, but take the time to eat dinner with our children, to look them in the eye and ask about their day, to snuggle with their favorite book and a blanket instead of retreating to Facebook and Instagram...well, just maybe we are angels as well.
Shabbat Shalom to all you angels - and wishing peace unto you, messengers of the Most High.