It’s impossible to read the Torah without meeting angels. An angel keeps humans from reentering Eden. Three angels arrive at the entrance to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. An angel stops Abraham from slaughtering Isaac. According to later Jewish folklore, an angel greets each baby emerging from the womb, and our lives end with an encounter with the Angel of Death.
In the recently passed election period, channeling Abraham Lincoln, we spoke of “better angels,” and even “braver angels,” and we are now entering the season of “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings” (this is not the way Jews think of angels, but I get it!). Of course, there are also “Angels in the Outfield.”
Danny Siegel, a friend, teacher and poet, reports boarding a bus in Jerusalem once and being charged for three people. When he questioned the driver about this, the driver informed Danny that he was paying for “them,” but there was no “them” around. Danny assumed that he was paying the fare for angels.
The Psalms tell us that humans are a little lower than the angels, and some suggest that because we have free will, we are actually higher than the angels who have no choice but to do God’s will.
In the current cycle of Torah readings, Jews all over the world this week are reading about Jacob’s dream of the ladder, and next week we’ll read about Jacob’s wrestling match. In trying to understand the dream, it was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner who first pointed out to me that the angels are going up and down the ladder, and not down and up. Can I learn to look at each human being as someone who might be bringing me a message? Will I heed the message?
Just last week, I arrived at my temple before 6 a.m. and saw someone sleeping on our front steps, under an overhang. I opted not to disturb him to see if he was OK, but waited a little while to come back to check. By the time I returned, he was gone. All that was there was a loaf of white bread. Did he leave it behind intentionally? Was that to be his sustenance for the day, inadvertently left behind? Did someone leave it for him? Was it a message for me? Had an angel been left to sleep outside on a breezy, rainy night?
In these troubled times, among the many things that have bothered me, is the way we automatically assume ill intent from someone who thinks differently. Republicans are thought to be closed-minded and ignorant. Democrats are thought to be naive socialists. In the minds of the other, we’ve all been duped by some nefarious individuals or groups. I’m not so simple as to believe that there isn’t evil in the world. I see it and I will always do my best to fight against it. Does that, though, need to be our opening assumption when we meet someone, or can we learn to think that perhaps this person can be a hidden angel, perhaps even one of the 36 totally righteous people Judaism teaches must be in the world at any one time in order for the world to go on?
I would like to say that I’m good at this, that I've mastered the art. More often than not, I fail. You can call me hypocritical, or you can credit me for aspiring to better.
I’m trying to teach myself to think in terms more closely aligned with the reflections in another piece by Siegel, called “A Rebbi’s Proverb”: “If you always assume the person sitting next to you is the Messiah waiting for some simple act of kindness — You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands. And if that person so chooses not to be revealed in your time — it will not matter.”
Many of us will likely be celebrating Thanksgiving very differently this year. Let’s return to the idea of actually giving thanks. After that, may we find joy and meaning in the season of miracles and light.
n Jack Paskoff is rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. He also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: email@example.com.