Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Minneapolis. I learned to recite the Hebrew prayers without much knowledge about them. Post-WWII was an era when the Jewish world was pushing away as fast as it could from everything that reminded us of the ‘old world’ Jew and embraced everything that had to do with the ‘new Jew’. Yiddish and Ladino, the spoken languages of those murdered by Hitler, gave way to Hebrew – with a Sephardic, not Ashkenazic pronunciation because that sounded too much like Yiddish. Folk tales and folk wisdom gave way to rationalism; faith and belief in God and all things unseen gave way to what could be proven by science.
Looking back at the Judaism of my childhood it seems that the driving force for the Hebrew schools and Sunday schools of that era was: “don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory”. I have compassion on the generation of my parents, the “greatest generation” who at the same time that they were starting families of their own, they were struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible, and deal with the shock, horror, trauma and denial of the far-reaching impact of the genocidal mania of the fascists.
Motivated by fear and trauma, anxious that horrible things could still be just around the corner, our elders failed to teach us some of the juiciest parts of our traditions and cultures. Our mystical traditions are many and varied, and our written record of them began with the Prophets Ezekiel, Zachariah & Isaiah and those mystical traditions, thought, writings, meditation techniques and prayer practices, permeate our history, through every time period from the Prophets until now.
During the post-war years in Minnesota, there was a sharp divide between the cocoon of the Jewish world and the ‘outside world’. Distinctions were made about what was “Jewish” and what was “Christian”. It was an either/or proposition, and in the world of my childhood, anything that wasn’t Jewish was Christian, or to use the pejorative term that I was raised with, ‘goyish’.
Somehow, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I thought that angels belonged to the ‘outside’ world, to the Christians. In cartoons, there were the two angels who would perch on the hero’s shoulders and whisper in his ear - - one angel had a halo and urged him to do good things, and one angel looked like the devil and urged wicked things. There was the cute little cherub, a rotund little boy with wings, who shot arrows at people so that they would fall in love – usually near Valentine’s Day.
Looking back on it, I am surprised perhaps even stunned by how many references there are to angels in our Biblical literature and in our prayer books. Let me remind you of some of the Biblical examples. Angels came to Abraham and predicted the birth of Isaac. An angel of God called out to Hagar after she was banished by Abraham and Sarah – from the traditional reading for the first day of Rosh HaShannah. An angel of God called out to Abraham to stop him from sacrificing Isaac – the traditional Torah reading for the second day of Rosh HaShannah. After Jacob ran away from home he had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder. Jacob wrestles with an angel and has his name changed to Israel. And one of my favorites, the story of Balaam, his donkey and a menacing angel sent to kill Balaam. Balaam could not see the angel standing in the path with a drawn sword in his hand, but the donkey could. The donkey refused to go forward into the reach of the menacing angel and his sword. Balaam beats the donkey to no avail. Finally, the donkey is given the gift of speech and an argument ensues between the two. Balaam’s eyes are suddenly able to perceive the angel and he falls to the ground in supplication. This is the Biblical prelude to the phrase, ‘mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael’; ‘how fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel’.
Our prayer books are replete with references to angels. At Jewish summer camp and hanging out at Hillel in college, I connected with the energy of everybody being together, sharing food and stories, and after dinner singing and pounding on the table during the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal.
One of the songs that we sang with great vigor was Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the angels to be with us on shabbat. We welcome the Angels from the Most High, from the King of Kings; we ask that they come in peace, bless us with peace, and then to leave in peace.
So who are what are angels in our tradition? As you can imagine, we have many different ideas. One thing that is agreed upon is that they are messengers from God. The Hebrew word for ‘angel’ is ‘malach’ and it means messenger. It is also related to the word for ‘work’ or ‘task’. That brings us to the second thing that is agreed upon about angels, they usually have one task to do. For instance, the angel named Rapahel, is a healer - - his name combines one of the names of God “EL”, with a word for healing – ‘rafa’. Some say that angels are real - - Adin Steinsaltz, the pre-eminent living scholar of the Talmud, says that angels have real existence and are not abstractions. Others say that angels are metaphors for forces within us: our feelings, our thoughts, and our impulses.
What do you think about angels? Please turn your chairs into small discussion groups and use the study sheet about angels that I have prepared for you.
Angels Study sheet, Yom Kippur 5776
Commentary on the Kedushah, Rabbi David A. Teutsch
“This passage pictures an angelic chorus singing God’s praises. In Jewish tradition, angels have had a long and varied history - - messengers warning Abraham of Sodom’s destruction, the heavenly choir of Isaiah, The Talmud’s host of heavenly functionaries, the impersonal forces of medieval philosophy, the presences of the Kabbalists. The tradition leaves ample room for each generation to understand angels as it will, whether as natural forces or revealing moments in our lives, the divine in the people we meet, or manifestations of the goodness in our world or in the inner workings of the human heart. (Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press, p.264).
“The angel cannot reveal its true form to man, whose being, senses, and instruments of perception belong only to the world of action: in the world of action there are no means of grasping the angel. It continues to belong to a different dimension even when apprehended in one form or another. This may be compared with those frequencies of electromagnetic fields that are beyond the limited range ordinarily perceived by our senses. We know that human vision assimilates only a small fragment of the spectrum; as far as our senses are concerned, the rest of it does not exist” (Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 8).
“It would be quite misleading . . . to regard angels as abstractions, as hypothetical conceptualizations . . . that have no real existence. Each angel is a complete being that possesses consciousness of itself and awareness of its surroundings”.
(Adin Steinsaltz, Strife of the Spirit, p.45).
“Among the many thousands of angels to be found in the various worlds are those that have existed from the very beginning of time, for they are an unfaltering part of the Eternal Being and the fixed order of the universe. These angels in a sense constitute the channels of plenty through which the Divine grace rises and descends through the worlds.” (Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 7).
“But there are also angels that are continuously being created anew, in all the worlds, especially in the world of action where thoughts, deeds and experiences give rise to angels of different kinds. . . More precisely, the person who performs a mitzvah, who prays or directs his mind toward the Divine, in doing so creates an angel, which is a sort of reaching out on the part of man to the higher worlds. Such an angel, however, connected in its essence to the man who created it, still lives, on the whole, in a different dimension of being” (Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 7).
“Rabbi Yose ben Yehuda taught, ‘two angels accompany every man from synagogue to home on the eve of the Sabbath. One good angel and one bad angel. If he enters his house and finds the candles lit, and everything clean and tidy, the good angel exclaims: ‘May it be thus next Shabbat!’ and the bad angel is compelled to respond, ‘Amen’. If the case is otherwise, and the house is messy and unprepared for Shabbat, the bad angel exclaims, May it be this way next Sabbath as well! And the good angel is compelled to say, ‘Amen’.’ BT Shabbat 119b
4: Inside divine wings you are nestled,
Beneath God’s pinions you are housed,
A shield embracing is God’s truth.
11: For God shall bid the angels to you,
to protect you upon all your paths.
“This psalm  revels in the many words for the enclave of divine protection: secret [place], shade, fortress tower, wings, pinions, embracing shield, canopy, abode, tent, angels, divine hands”. Comment by Joel Rosenberg, translator
(Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press, p.197)
“Angels are another name for feelings” Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Angels are another name for feelings.
When we love and act with kindness
We create angels of love and kindness;
When we hate and act with violence
We create angels of hatred and violence.
It is our job to fill our world with angels of love:
Messengers of kindness
That link people together as one family.
(Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press p. 12)