This Shabbats D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam
A 2011 poll by the Associated Press found that 77% of Americans believe in angels. Now, Americans are known for a certain proclivity toward fervent religiosity, yet, it was not only the religious who affirmed this belief. In the poll, 94% of people who attended any sort of weekly religious service said they believe in angels – but even in those who identified as non-religious, secular, or atheist, more than 40% agreed that the celestial beings walk among us.
The question remains: what are these beings who garner so much belief, even in our contemporary world of smartphones and self-driving cars? If popular culture is to be believed, angels look an awful lot like this:
Yet, Judaism has a slightly different idea of what these beings are – and one that can help us greatly to understand the passage we’ve read this morning.
In The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: “The nature of the angel is to be, to a degree, as its name in Hebrew signifies, a messenger, to constitute a permanent contact between our world of action and the higher worlds. An angel’s missions go in two directions: it may serve as an emissary of God downward… and it may also serve as the one carries things upwards from below.” (9)
We certainly saw this last week in Jacob’s dream of the ladder – with angels coming up and down the stairway he saw- presumably all on important missions. Steinsaltz gives us a bit more to work on as well:
“An angel is sometimes sent downward from a higher world to a lower. For what we call the mission of the angel can be manifested in many different ways. The angel cannot reveal its true form to man, whose being, senses and instruments of perception belong only to the world of action — it continues to belong to a different dimension even when apprehended in one form or another…thus, angels have been revealed to human beings in one of two ways: one is through the vision of the prophet, the other is through an isolated act of apprehension by an ordinary person suddenly privileged to receive a revelation of things from higher levels. And even so, when such a person or prophet does in some way experience the reality of an angel, his perception, limited by his senses, remains bound to material structures, and his language inevitably tends to expressions of actual or imagined physical forms.” (13)
The picture is getting clearer – and it is beginning to look less and less like how we may imagine..
In our parashah we read about Jacob, on his way to meet Esav again after so many years of strife and deception. One night, he finds himself utterly alone. Then, all of a sudden, a ‘man’ appears with whom he wrestles in the light of the moon. The man injures Jacob’s hip but Jacob nonetheless prevails – keeping the anonymous wrestler in a headlock until he blesses Jacob. Once he does, the man suggests Jacob change his name. Curious, Jacob asks the man what his name is, to which he gets the enigmatic answer, “Now, why do you ask my name at all?”
By all means – it’s a strange passage. Yet it is fundamental to how we understand ourselves as Jews. Jacob is our ancestor, our namesake, and more often than not, our model of religious life. He deceives, he cheats, he is in turn deceived and cheated- and in the end, he makes peace with his brother- but only after this encounter with the ‘man in the night’ with whom he wrestles.
Although the word ‘malakh’ (messenger/angel) does not appear once in this story, our tradition quickly asserted that this anonymous man was in fact an angel of some sort. The Midrash offers a couple explanations: 1) that this being was Esav’s guardian angel, and before Jacob could confront his flesh-and-blood brother he first had to wrangle with the angel tasked to protect him, 2) that this being appeared to Jacob in the image of a shepherd. He had sheep, just like Jacob had sheep. He had camels, just like Jacob had camels. He said to Jacob, “You pass over yours and then I’ll pass over mine.”
If we look at this second interpretation, we get a sense that this being was in fact a mirror image of Jacob. Perhaps we can say that it was Jacob himself. At the very least it seems to be a sort of shadow-form of Jacob. Jacob wrestles with himself, with his own demons, his own issues, his own failures- and prevails. In doing so he becomes the patriarch we invoke every time we use the name Yisra’el, One who Wrestles God.
After all, the story begins with a clear setting: Jacob was left completely alone. So – if this being was in fact some manifestation of Jacob’s own subconscious – is it any less of angel? It certainly isn’t the sort of angel we imagine with wings and a harp and a perfectly-polished halo. But there is more to the story.
After winning their little rough-up, Jacob asks the man his name. It responds, “Now, why would you ask my name?” Perhaps it says this because Jacob should already know. But maybe not. There’s a lovely explanation of this question that comes from the Renaissance Ladino Torah commentary known as Me’am Loez. There it says:
“Now, why do you ask my name? Because we don’t have a fixed name – we are called by the name of our mission. For example, if God sends an angel to heal a sick person, it’s called Rafa’el. If God sends an angel to help someone, it is called Azri’el. So our names change all the name and I’m not able to tell you my name, because if I tell you now it will be something different tomorrow.”
This is quite poetic considering that Jacob’s name is about to change. The being starts to fret, to tell Jacob to let him go, because he sees the sun rising. Because a new day is starting. When that day begins, he may have a different mission and a different name. What is certain is that when that day begins, Jacob will have a different mission and a different name.
If we’re to combine all of these teachings together, we get a vastly different image of angels than the popular conception. Perhaps the better metaphor is a synapse in the brain; A synapse carries a particular signal at a particular moment, relaying messages between different neurons and appearing and disappearing before one can even measure them. Each synapse has a particular purpose, to carry a particular message, and is known by the name of the ‘mission’ which it carriers.
So too, we learn that angels are an embodiment of a particular mission. They are constantly changing and appear to us in all different guises in the material world, including in the form of ourselves. We may encounter them in the faces of people all around us, and perhaps like Jacob, in the face that looks back at us from a mirror. If that is the understanding of angels with which our tradition identifies, then perhaps we can find a way to include ourselves among the 77% of those survey respondents who believed in them.
Rabbi Steinsaltz affirms that, “the angel who is sent to us from another world does not always have a significance or impact beyond the normal laws of physical nature. Indeed it often happens that the angel precisely reveals itself in nature, in the ordinary common-sense world of causality.” (15)
Thus, we live in a world full of angels. Their names are constantly changing, their appearances are rarely identifiable- but perhaps sometimes, where we’re alone on a quiet moonlit night, we can wrestle with an image of ourselves, and in it- find a message from God.