Whatever your belief in angels might be, the most important thing is to remember that there is a Creator of all of us who wants a direct and personal relationship with us ,without any intermediaries!
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Vayeira” (Genesis 18:1–22:24) and in it we repeatedly meet angels. For example, the reading opens up with three angels who come to visit Abraham. We then have an angel who blesses Sarah to have a baby, an angel who heals Abraham from his circumcision, an angel who is tasked with destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Amorah, and an angel who calls out to Abraham telling him to abort the near sacrifice of his son Isaac. Angels are everywhere. As such, let’s take this opportunity to understand the Jewish view on angels.
No, angels do not have bodies, wings, halos, nor do they fly anywhere like Superman. If someone tells you that they see such things, send them immediately to a psychiatric hospital. Yes, it’s true that Scripture often associates wings with angels but it is not meant to be taken literally, just as God having a “strong hand and outstretched arm” is not to be taken literally. They are metaphors to help us better understand the Torah’s message.
Angels are independent creations who are messengers of God. We do not believe that a person can become an angel after death. All angels have been created already. Angels have no free will. They can only do the tasks they have been preprogrammed to do by God, and every angel is programmed with the ability to perform only one task. Some angels cease to exist on completion of their task.
Indeed, the word for angel in Hebrew is “Malach,” which means “messenger,” and can also be translated as “work.” In other words, an angel is a “messenger” of God who carries out His “work.” So too, the English word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos,” meaning “messenger” or “agent.” According to the Zohar, one of the angels’ tasks is to bring our prayers before God, which helps explain the frequent reference to angels in our prayers.
Some of the more well-known angels include Michael (“Who is like God”), who is tasked with missions of “kindness”; Gavriel (“My strength is God”), who is tasked with missions of “strength” and “judgement”; Uriel (“My light is God”), who is tasked with missions of “illumination”; and Raphael (“My healer is God”), who is tasked with missions of “healing.” In the context of our Torah portion, Michael had come to bring Sarah the good news that she would have a son, Gavriel came to destroy Sodom and Amorah, and Raphael came to heal Abraham following his circumcision.
There is a belief that when one performs a mitzvah, he or she creates an accompanying angel. There is some truth to this idea. In the words of our Sages: “One who fulfills one mitzvah (Torah commandment) acquires for oneself an angel-advocate. One who commits one transgression, acquires against oneself an angel-accuser.”
Our sages divide all angels into one of 10 “categories” or “ranks.” Some of these ranks/terms will be familiar to readers. They are: Chayot Hakodesh, Ofanim, Arelim, Chashmalim, Serafim, Malachim, Elokim, Bnei Elokim, Keruvim, and Ishim. These ranks refer to the degree of each angel’s comprehension of God and closeness to Him. One can even derive the differing levels of angels from the names of their categories. For example, the highest category – “Chayot Hakodesh” – means “the holy living beings,” while the lowest category, “Ishim,” means “human-like.” Not all angels were created equal!
There are several opinions as to when God created His angels. According to Rabbi Yochanan, angels were created on the second day of Creation. He proves this from Psalm 104 where it says in verse 3: “Who roofs His upper chambers with water,” and in the following verse it says, “He makes His angels spirits…” Rabbi Yochanan argues that the angels must have been created on the second day as they are associated in the same verse as the Creation of water, which occurred on the second day.
Furthermore, in the story of Creation, there is an oddity in the citation of the various days. After the first day of Creation, the Torah says, “It was evening and it was morning, one day.” However, after every other day of creation the Torah says, “It was evening and it was morning, the second day…the third day… the fourth day… etc.” Why is the first day called “one day” and not “the first day?” It is explained that for the first day, God was alone, “One,” while from the second day onward, He wasn’t alone anymore having created the angels on that day.
According to another opinion, that of Rabbi Chanina, angels were created on the fifth day. He notes that the words used to describe the creation of the birds (which was on the fifth day) are similar to the words used by Isaiah to describe the angels.
Whatever your belief in angels might be, the most important thing is to remember that there is a Creator of all of us who wants a direct and personal relationship with us, without any intermediaries!
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