Angels in Judaism

Sermon given December 12, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

In August, at a “Wonderful Wednesday” program for folks over age 65, one of our members asked if I had seen a television program called “Touched by an Angel.” I had not. She asked me to watch it one Sunday night, and to consider commenting on it from a Jewish perspective. She wondered about the Jewish view of angels, and so did I.

Frankly, I had forgotten about Rabbi Stahl’s clear and comprehensive essay about “The Role of Angels in Judaism.” I commend it to you in his book, Making the Timeless Timely. There, Rabbi Stahl reminds us of the regular appearance of angels in the Bible, and teaches us the more elaborate images of angels constructed by our ancient rabbis and medieval mystics. On the other hand, we are told that strict rationalists have rejected the existence of angels, beginning as early as the twelfth century with Maimonides and continuing with the founders of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Stahl concludes that today’s “Reform Judaism is open to both views, as long as each is embraced after serious study and diligent investigation.”

The depiction of angels on Sunday night T.V. is neither Jewish nor believable. Della Reese is the chief angel, and she has two young assistant angels. They come to Earth in human form to intervene directly in lives gone astray. When they reveal themselves as angels, they are surrounded by a special effect, bathing them in bright light. With apologies to those who love the show, I must admit that I couldn’t keep from laughing out loud.

This televised depiction of angels is too literal to be taken seriously. If we are waiting for the actual human appearance of a heavenly being, then surely we shall never experience the true touch of an angel. Only in Hollywood are angels lit up for us with special effects. To see the true angels that Judaism offers us, we will have to search and discover for ourselves.

Tonight, let us examine three angelic encounters in the Torah, and consider how they may help us to recognize the angels in our own lives. One is with Moses, and two are with Jacob.

Most of us are familiar with Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. The bush is aflame, but it isn’t burning up. Moses sees an angel in the midst of the fire. And then, God speaks.

The angel doesn’t speak. What, then, is it doing there? Our Saturday morning Torah study, with a little help from the ancient rabbis, concluded that Moses wasn’t ready for a direct relationship with God. Had God spoken to Moses right away, Moses might have been shocked into paralysis. God provides the angel as a transitional step for Moses, an entree to the presence of the Lord.

Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived. If he needed an angel to get to God, then certainly we may, too. At our Services of Healing and Meditation, Barbie Gorelick has guided us to visualize the angels as a conduit to God and the Divine Presence of healing.

Perhaps, more broadly, an angel is whatever moves us closer to an experience of God. Words of a poem or notes of inspiring music may lift us to heaven on an angel’s wings. Thoughts of a departed loved one can elevate us to heavenly spheres. The first cries of a newborn child may transport us into the celestial court. If it prepares us to experience God, it is an angel.

Our second angelic encounter is found in this week’s Torah portion. Here Jacob wrestles. With whom does he struggle? “A man,” the text tells us, but we’re not convinced. God is involved, and we increasingly conclude that the adversary is an angel. Ultimately, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, which means: one who struggles with God.

Can an adversary be an angel? Do our struggles make us holy? If we will see them that way, perhaps even our enemies may be our angels.

Serious illness may awaken a spirituality that we never knew we possessed. When we look into the eyes of a person we dislike, one who is a thorn in our side, and we see the image of God, then surely we rise to the gates of heaven. The onset of a disability may actually be regarded as an angel, if it moves us to greater appreciation of life and of our Creator. If it brings us closer to God, then even if it is painful, it is an angel.

Our third example also involves Jacob. He appeared together with angels in last week’s Torah portion, too. Jacob dreams of a ladder, standing on the ground but reaching the heavens. The angels are going up the ladder, and then coming down. Last week’s Bat Mitzvah celebrant, Stephanie Lazarus, observed that the angels go up first, meaning that they start out here on Earth. Angels, she said, are all around us, if only we will see them.

I would take Stephanie’s analysis one step further. Jacob is all alone when he lies down to sleep and to dream. Perhaps the message is that he can be an angel, if only he will ascend to heaven, and then bring the divine back here to Earth. The implication may be that you and I can be angels as well.

When you have a spiritual experience, and you share it with others, elevating them to heavenly spheres, then surely you are the angel. When I feed the hungry, observing one of God’s mitzvot, I may be the angel, causing the will of heaven to reign on Earth. When you lavish unconditional love on your spouse, or on your child, or on your parent, you are the angel. God’s eternal love for humanity comes alive in this world through you. When we make Earth a little more like heaven, then we are the angels.

Tonight, we began our service with the traditional Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem. With those words, we welcomed God’s ministering angels, who usher in the Sabbath. These angels are not Hollywood actors, shining like the sun. They are heavenly and Earthbound servants of God, inspiring us to holiness. Sometimes, our angel may look very ordinary. As our three examples illustrated, an angel is whatever brings us closer to God, even if it seems to be negative. She may even be you. He may even be me.

God does send angels to us. May our eyes, our hands, our hearts, our minds and our spirits be open to receive them. Then, may be sing with sincerity, Shalom Aleichem, welcome, our angels.