Do you believe in angels? Are you and angel? If you ask the average Jew he’ll tell you that angels are something Christians believe in—not Jews. But he’d be wrong. Perhaps it’s because of the stereotype of angels we’ve seen from medieval and renaissance art with angels as sexless creatures with big puffy white wings—the subject of theologians in the Middle Ages about how many of them could dance on the head of a pin.
But Judaism does speak about angels. If you had a Shabbos dinner last night, you probably sang Shalom Aleychem—a song of welcome for the Shabbos angels. It’s based on a story from the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) that says that on Friday evening when you come home from shul, each Jew is accompanied by 2 angels. They look in the window of the house. If they see that the candles are lit, and the table is beautifully set for the Shabbos meal, and the family is happy, one angel says, “May next week be just like this.” But if they look in the window and the candles are not lit, and there is no Shabbos meal, and the family is fighting and upset, the other angel says, “May next week be just like this.” That’s why we sing in Shalom Aleychem: Barchuni l’shalom, malachey hashalom, “Bless us with peace, angels of peace.”
In today’s Torah reading, Jacob’s sons were tending his flocks in Shechem but were late in returning. He sends Joseph to see if the brothers are OK. Remember it was in Shechem that the brothers (Simon and Levi) attacked the city—killing the king and its people. Certainly there must still be resentment towards Jacob’s sons among the locals and so he’s worried.
When Joseph arrives in Shechem he looks and he looks, but he can’t find them. He’s about to return home when suddenly the Torah tells us, Vayimtza-eyhu ish, he finds a man who steps forward out of nowhere and tells him that he happened to overhear the brothers saying that they were going to Dotan.
Now what are the chances that Joseph would bump into a man who happened to be eavesdropping and overheard the brothers say where they’re going next? Think about this. Without this mysterious man, Joseph returns home. He doesn’t meet up with his brothers and get sold into slavery in Egypt and become Prime Minister of Egypt. The Jewish people don’t go down to Egypt, they don’t get the Torah at Sinai and we don’t have Passover and matzah balls—all because of this mysterious man who appears out of nowhere for a few minutes. According to the Midrash (Targum Yonatan) this man was the angel Gavriel in the likeness of a man.
The Jewish concept of an angel can be seen in the Hebrew word for angel, malach, which literally means “a messenger, or one who brings a message from Gd.” Most of the angels in the Bible are not described supernaturally. They seem to be anonymous people doing angelic things.
My friends, we all encounter angels of sorts—anonymous people who suddenly appear in our lives at the right time to help us. An oriental proverb expresses it well: “When you are ready to learn, a teacher appears.” When we’re open to receiving it, Gd’s message can be transmitted to us.
I have spoken, on occasion, about the supernatural kind of angels. But today I’d like to speak about the human kind of angels. It often happens that someone will tell me that something I said a year or 2 in the past—an idea, or a story or a saying of the Rabbis—was so important for them at a crucial time in their lives. I tell them that it wasn’t something I’d planned. The truth is…I don’t know really why I choose to speak about somethings and not others. Usually, the topic chooses me and doesn’t let go—like some kind of Divine guidance. But it was their openness at that time to receive the message that was intended for them that made it significant; and I somehow turned out to be the messenger, the malach.
Have you had this experience? Perhaps you were sitting shiva. Someone visits or emails you, and tells you something about your loved one that you didn’t know, something they’d done, someone they’d helped, something that explained the kind of person they’d become. And you feel very grateful that they shared this with you bringing you a bit closer to your loved one. That visitor is also a malach, an angel.
Yesterday’s Atlanta Journal/Constitution (p. A4) had a story about Bob Wilson—owner of a chain of restaurants in California. Wilson read a story about the students of Paradise High School in California and how 90% of them were homeless after the recent fire devastated the town. He thought, if he gave money to a charity it might take weeks for them to receive it so he wrote checks for $1,000 and personally gave one to each student, teacher, administrator, custodian and bus driver—about $1.1 million dollars’ worth.
Bob Wilson was their malach, their angel.
It was April of 1944. The Nazis entered the once vibrant city of Munkacz to round up all the Jews and place them into ghettos. A month later they were forced into boxcars on the way to Auschwitz. Among those on board was a 17-year-old boy named Shlomo Zalman. In the middle of the night the train arrived at the most horrible place on earth. Hundreds of men and women were herded off the train and told to stand on that infamous line.
Shlomo Zalman had no clue where he was or why he was there, or what the actions of the man standing at the head of the line pointing to the right or to the left signified. Suddenly out of the darkness the skeleton of a man came forward dressed in a stripe uniform and grabbed him by the arms as he whispered to him in Yiddish, “In what year were you born?”
The boy replied, “I was born in 1927.”
“No you were not,” said the man. “You were born in 1925. Remember that. 1925. Tell me again, what year were you born?”
Shlomo Zalman replied, “1925!” And the man walked away and disappeared.
When Shlomo Zalman came to the front of the line the only question he was asked was, “What year were you born?”
“1925,” he said, and with that they motioned him to the right. It was only later that he found out that only those over the age of 18 survived. Anyone under the age of 18 was sent to the left—to the gas chambers.
Shlomo Zalman survived Auschwitz and 2 other camps. He’s better known today as Sol Teichman, a businessman, a philanthropist, a father and a grandfather. Today there are hundreds of synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish institutions around the world that bear the Teichman name—that he built and supports. Hardly a day goes by that Sol Teichman doesn’t think of that 5-second encounter with that man on the selection line—a man who stepped out from his own sorrow and misery to save a boy from certain death. Like the mysterious man in the Joseph story, he never saw him before and he never saw him since.
Who was this man? Was he a malach—an angel disguised as a human being? Or perhaps he was something else. Maybe he was a human being disguised as an angel—a human being that transcended his own soul to become someone’s angel.
My friends, let’s take a moment to think about the angels in our lives. We all have them. Who are the angels in your life? Perhaps it’s someone who stepped out of the shadow of his own world to rescue you, to heal you, to comfort you, to touch your soul? Perhaps it was a doctor who not only practiced medicine but took your crisis to heart and was there for you day and night. Perhaps it was a friend who wouldn’t allow you to sink to the lowest point of despair. Is it perhaps a teacher, a mother, a father? Think about them. Think about the angels that were and are there for us.
Let us ask one more question: For whom do we serve as angels? When a friend, a family member, or even a stranger desperately needs a lifeline, are we ready to step forward and be that angel. Sometimes it’s the big things and sometimes it’s the little things. Sometimes it’s a 5-minute phone call to someone who can really use a friend; sometimes it’s visiting someone in the hospital. Sometimes it’s writing a check to charity. You never know what it’s going to mean for you to be an angel at that particular time.
Everyone has a sh’lichut, a special mission or missions to perform in life. We might not even be aware of it as we do it. We just need to be open to the fact that what we do, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, can have a profound effect upon others.
Jacob’s dream-vision—with a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending—expresses the idea that there are many malachim, many angels always around us. May we acknowledge and be grateful for the angels in our lives and may we step up to be an angel for others. Amen!