Parshat Vayishlach by Ari Hart
What is an angel?
Winged being in white? Powerful deity?
Do Jews even believe in angels? Let’s take a look at Vayishlach and 2 great chassidic commentators to find some answers. The first line of this week’s parasha is:
??????????? ??????? ?????????? ???????? ??? ??????
And Ya’akov sent angels (malachim) ahead of him to to Esav.
Who are the angels? Messengers on the ground. No halos or puffy clouds here.
Inspired by verses like this, The hassidic master Rav Tzadok HaKohen writes in Sichot Malachei Hashareit (The Conversations of Angels) that angels are not supernatural beings. Rather, an angel is anyone, or anything, actively doing God’s work. While engaged in its divine task, it is called a malach, angel. Once the task is completed, it loses the designation. If someone performs enough of these holy missions, so much so that they become a part of her identity and life, she reaches an even higher level. Just as someone whose living consists of mending clothes is called “tailor,” one who consistently serves the divine will is called a “malach,” at all times.
Rav Tzadok is doing more than just defining angels. He is calling us to strive higher, to turn our entire beings into agents to serve what is holy, good and true; to become angels in this world.
It’s a tough call to hear. I often ask myself why I have such a hard time answering it. Sometimes I think it’s because the mission seems too great – so much suffering and pain, an infinite amount of work to be done. More often though, it’s because I find myself too small: so little wisdom, so little patience, so little room outside my own ego and concerns for things bigger than myself. How can I even begin to think that I’m on some kind of Godly mission? How could I ever call myself an angel? Chutzpah.
At times like these I turn to another favorite chassidic master, the Sfas Emes, who writes the following on Parashat Beha’alotcha (5636):
* “One of the greatest religious challenges is that people fear having a relationship with God, and so they consequently distance themselves. However, just as angels serve God without fear despite their relatively lower status, so can human beings. We must not fear partnering with and serving God. This is the wholeness that we as human beings are capable of, but only if we think of ourselves as walking amongst angels.”
By overcoming that great yetzer harah of doubt, we can rise to the levels of angels and be in relationship with the divine. We need not wait for an afterlife and we need not be perfect – being an angel means hearing and heeding those sacred, sometimes secret calls in our everyday lives.
Going into shabbat, I’ll be thinking about these two questions:
1. What’s the holy mission I am going to perform this week?
2. What’s stopping me from walking amongst the angels?