Our ancestors knew how hard – sometimes even impossible – it is for one to decipher, alone, the signs of hidden intentions. Loyal messengers are needed. Our forefather saw angels – both in dreams and in reality – who appeared at the crossroads, who guided them in the right direction.
The angels appear so as to offer hope and a vision. Sometimes they appear before a woman, hearing her outcry, and alert her of a difficult challenge she will face. Sometimes they deliver an urgent message, such as “Leave Sodom.” Sometimes they inform a person of his responsibility to lead. They often announce the Master’s entry. It is just as difficult to perceive angels as it is to grasp who dispatched them: “And the angel of the Lord said unto him: ‘Wherefore askest thou after my name, seeing it is hidden?’” (Judges 13:18).
Jacob has a special connection to both heaven and earth: a ladder on which representatives of the universe’s CEO ascend and descend. At its top stands God, who identifies himself at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and explains to Jacob, in effect: Your father and grandfather conversed with me. You will succeed. You will have many descendants and will reveal to humanity its blessing. I shall watch over you wherever you go.
Identifying the messengers can be complicated – not just because they lack external signs, but principally because it is can be hard to hear their message. The encounter with them can be frightening; they have the power to undermine what we think we know about ourselves: “And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:17).
Angels surprise us with their generosity; they smile forgivingly at actions we tend to judge harshly when performed by us or others. Sometimes they help us return to what we once were. When the order of things seems irrecoverably disrupted, they promise its restoration. If they appear in a dream, they will also bear its interpretation. Sometimes they will allude to a role we must assume. They always bear tidings for us. They are momentary representatives of a supreme, other-worldly authority.
They have no wings nor do they dwell in heaven. Sometimes they are momentary visitors in our lives. For example, the mechanic who was about to check my car after it was damaged in an accident and who revealed to me how upset I was. Or the woman who told me that my failure at a particular task might be a sign that I need a vacation. Or the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who informed me that I would attain freedom by facing a truth that assigned a special role to me.
In secular society, where people are instructed to rely chiefly on themselves, angels have been replaced by experts and consultants who lack the training to show us our role in the Master Plan.
The prohibition on seeing angels leaves us without signposts. We wander around in circles, our fate determined by social conventions, our family’s lot in life or genetics.
Those who have dismissed God suffer from a lack of angels. Their world is bereft of someone who not only has valuable knowledge to impart to them, but also the authority to tell them what their obligation to humanity is. Those who lack angels do not know how to ask directions from the people they meet along the way. They do not know where to find a good teacher. They cannot identify the spokespersons of a higher authority. They have no master plan and thus cannot find the one who can tell them what their role is in the Plan. If a leader inadvertently emerges to spearhead the movement to which they belong, they will help topple that leader, to prevent him or her from challenging them to fulfill a role they may not want to assume.
In 1929, a 13-year-old, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student went to Jerusalem’s open-air market, Mahane Yehuda, to do some little shopping. He saw a crowd gathered around a short man who had climbed onto an overturned orange crate to give himself a little height. The speaker told his audience that Jerusalem was the past and that the future was Tel Aviv and the Zionist pioneering rural settlements. At age 14, that yeshiva student, my father, left Jerusalem to make his home on Tel Aviv’s coastline. Two years later, guided by the marketplace messenger, he joined a group of idealists who established a kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley. The angel that my father met was David Ben-Gurion.
Who will bring me the angels who know supreme intentions and who can free us from our obsession with meaningless “religious” acts, or from the judgment of people who repeatedly use the word “perfection” when all they really mean is that the gravy is just right for the beef, and who will never disclose to you what your social responsibility is?
Who will bring me the angels who ascend and descend from the ladder, who bear a message from concealed worlds, who – like the little man in Mahane Yehuda – can stand on an overturned orange crate, who can tell me what the next stage is, whom I will encounter by chance at a crossroads, who will point the way with a nod of their head, who will smile forgivingly at my errors in navigation?