Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Vayishlach: "The Better Angels"
Do you believe in angels? Have you ever met one? I do, and I have. Let me tell you about the ones I've met.
But first, why do I believe in angels? Well, it is because I believe in the Bible, and the Bible speaks of angels. If you have been following the Torah readings for the past several weeks, you have read about angels quite a few times: An angel of God instructs Hagar to return to Sarah’s service (Genesis 16:7-12); it is an angel who assures Hagar that her son Ishmael will survive (ibid. 21:17-18); and an angel calls out to Abraham from heaven and prevents him from harming Isaac (ibid. 22:11-12).
The Torah portion we read just last week, Parshat Vayetze, began with Jacob’s dream, in which angels ascend and descend a ladder to heaven (ibid. 31:11), and concluded with the “angels of the Lord” whom he encountered upon his return to the land of Canaan.
Not once in any of these incidents is the angel described, and we are left wondering whether these angels are humanoid but winged creatures (as they are described elsewhere in the Bible), or heavenly bodiless spirits, emissaries of God who heed His command and perform His will. Either way, if you take the Bible literally, you must believe that there is such a thing as an angel.
But what do I mean when I say that I have met angels? Surely you would scoff if I told you that I encountered a winged creature that descended from the heaven and spoke to me on my way to the subway yesterday. I wouldn’t try to convince you of that without fear that you would question my sanity, and indeed that is not what I mean when I say that I have met angels.
In order to explain what I mean, I must quote that central masterpiece of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, in a passage in its commentary on the Book of Ruth. There, it is written, “If you perform mitzvot, you will find that out of each mitzvah, a beneficent angel is created.” That good angels are created out of our good deeds, and that evil angels are produced by our sins, is a popular notion in our tradition—so much so that many commentators find sources in the Mishnah and Talmud for this idea.
Take, for example, this passage in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers): “Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said: One who performs a single mitzvah acquires for himself an advocate. One who commits a single transgression acquires for himself an accuser.” No less an authority than the Gaon of Vilna understands that the advocate is the good angel created by the performance of the mitzvah, and the accuser is the evil angel resulting from a sinful act.
What are these angels like? Are they the winged creatures flying from place to place, as they are often depicted in illustrated Bibles? I think not. I think these angels are representations of the influence that our deeds have upon others in our environment. If we perform a good deed, it has an effect on those around us, and this effect is termed a good angel. I’ve known some very pious individuals and have seen the “angels” they produced in their lifetimes reflected in their offspring and disciples, even long after they themselves passed away. And we all have witnessed the lasting impact of the “evil angels” created by the misdeeds of fiends and knaves.
Over the past several months, we have all suffered as we witnessed the tragic murders of fellow Jews—in synagogues, at bus stops, and upon battlefields. As we read about these individuals, we could not help but be impressed by the impact and influence they had on others. Even in the cases of very young victims, we learned of the effect they had upon parents and siblings. Each of these kedoshim, holy martyred souls, left behind numerous angels who will live on long after the death of those whose good deeds created them.
These are the angels whom I have met. I met some of them on those occasions when I paid condolence calls upon bereaved families who embody the teachings of their lost beloved parents and teachers. And I have met others in print as I read the numerous stories of the lasting impact that young soldiers had upon their fellows and friends.
We create angels, and I believe that these are the kind of angels whom we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43). It begins: “Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau…” The Hebrew word here generally translated as “messengers” is malachim, or malach in the singular. Yet this is the same word which, in the verses cited near the beginning of this column, is invariably translated as “angels.” Did Jacob send angels, or did he send messengers?
Those who translate malachim in this verse as messengers do so because they cannot fathom that Jacob, a mere mortal, would have angels at his beck and call. Yet Rashi, the greatest of our commentators, insists that Jacob sent malachim mamash, real, “tangible” angels. How could that be?
I would not be the first to suggest that Jacob’s angels were of the second type of angel that I have been describing. Jacob’s “angels” were the product of his many good deeds: of his faithful adherence to his duties as Laban’s shepherd, of his acts of charity and fervent prayers to God. The angels he created out of his good deeds are the ones he sent to appease his fearsome brother, Esau.
Some have found a hint of this interpretation in the words malachim mamash. Mamash means real, actual, and literally tangible. But its letters comprise an acronym for Min Mitzvot She’asah, from the good deeds he performed; or Malachim Mimitzvot She’asah, angels from the good deeds he performed.
Jacob was not the only one capable of creating angels. We all are capable of performing good deeds. Our good deeds may not reach the level of those of Jacob, so our angels may be less “angelic” than his, but we all can cultivate angels within ourselves.
We can step outside the Jewish tradition and learn that others have discovered this secret—namely, that we have spiritual abilities within us that cry out for expression. There are potential angels within us all.
Abraham Lincoln knew this and expressed it in his majestically eloquent First Inaugural Address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield…all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Long before Lincoln, our father Jacob taught us that we all have mystic chords of memory within us, waiting, desperately waiting, to be touched by the better angels of our nature. These better angels, whom we create out of our own good deeds, will stand us in good stead as we encounter the Esaus of our own time.