Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Reflections on Parashat VaYishlach 5775

Angels are to Jacob what fast food joints are to I-95. Whenever the Torah paints a portrait of Jacob, angels are photobombing in the background. It's like he can't get away from those things.

He leaves home and has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that stretches to heaven. Later, he follows his path and encounters angels of Gcd, and then calls the place Machanaim, the double encampment of angels. 

He sends angels to appease his hot-headed brother Esav. Then he wrestles with an angel, Esav's angel/advocate, who, according some opinions, was none other than Sama-el, the Angel of Death himself.

And at the end of his life, he blesses his grandsons Menashe & Ephraim by invoking the protections of the angel that had rescued him at every crisis in his incredibly crisis-ridden life.

So what's the deal with the angels, and why do they figure so prominently in Jacob's life? 

The answer depends on one's understanding of what angels are and what their function is in the unseen world which exists beyond our senses.

The Jewish view on angels is derived from the Hebrew word malach, which means both emissary and angel. Basically, angels are Gcd's messengers. Each one is created for a specific task, and ceases to exist when that task is completed. Some angels have ongoing missions and thus exist for eons; other exist for a fleeting moment. The Rambam, based on a careful examination of angelic verses throughout the Torah, organized the types of angels into a ten-level hierarchy. They are, to use a cytology analogy, the messenger RNA in the great cytoplasm of the universe.

There is, though, another view of angels in the Torah. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires for himself a single defending angel. A person who commits one transgression acquires a single accusing angel." (Avot 4:13)

What a beautiful idea! Normally, we think of angels flitting hither and thither in Gcd's created universe rushing about to do His will. But when we mortals do Gcd's will by performing His mitzvot, we ourselves create an angel; an advocate that will accompany us through life and stand up for us on that inevitable day when we must give a full accounting for our deeds: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We have the power to create angels. Our good deeds become angels that surround us, protect us, nurture us. 

Prior to his encounter with Esav, Jacob prays to Gcd: "I am 'smallified' by all the kindness and truth with which you have dealt me..." (Genesis 32:11) The simple sense of 'smallified' (Heb.: katonti) in the verse is 'humbled', but Rashi suggests otherwise: Jacob was afraid that, measured against all of the abundant kindnesses that Gcd had showered on Jacob, his good deeds would seem paltry by comparison, and Gcd might decide to give him over to the hand of the enemy. 

Here we see expression given to the idea that our good deeds are our advocates. Jacob is surrounded by his angels, his good deeds, that he had accumulated throughout his life. In his humility, he was worried that he had not accomplished enough good; but in the end, he had nothing to fear.

We are but the sum of our deeds, our mitzvot. Gcd doesn't care how much money we pile up, what kind of car we drive, what timepiece dangles from our wrists. Ultimately, our actions will speak more eloquently for us than any image consultant, epitaph or autobiography.

The newspapers are littered with stories of people, once thought to be great, once looked up to and admired as leaders, being dragged away in handcuffs, indicted by their actions. I won't repeat the litany of names or the various lesser self-aggrandizing rasputins and faith-healers who, wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and righteous attitudes, rape, defame, assault and embezzle. Some have already been exposed; it's just a matter of time for the others.

Let us all join together to flood the world with angels. Take the mitzvot seriously! Unplug your devices on Shabbat. Give a homeless person an Andrew Jackson. Call your mother. Put on tefillin. Pick a mitzvah - any mitzvah - and create an angel.

Shabbat Shalom.

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