Jewish Angels? Who Knew?
I always believed that angels were a symbol of Christianity. As a matter of fact, when I thought of angels, I thought of death. And so, I never bought a single card, a stuffed animal, a doll or a picture that depicted an angel. I wanted them nowhere near my children.
But a prayer we read daily confused me. O Fashioner of ministering angels; all of Whose ministering angels stand at the summit of the universe and proclaim with awe, together, loudly the words of the living G-d and King of the universe. They are all beloved; they are all flawless; they are all mighty, they all do the will of their Maker with dread and reverence (Page 86 Artscroll).
I remember clearly a conversation I had with the rabbi after I asked him to explain the prayer to me. I remember thinking, what’s with the angels? That is obviously not how I phrased the question, but that is how the question was rolling around in my head.
“It’s about the angels,” he said.
“There are angels in Judaism?” I asked. I had always believed that I was protected by something, but I never gave that something a name. Now that I could, I was more than willing to claim angels for myself.
He then told me a glorious midrash (story) taught in Judaism. According to our Sages, whenever you fulfill a mitzvah (a commandment), you acquire an angel. Say a kind word, give a sincere compliment, offer assistance, visit a sick friend, give charity, and the angels will come to love and protect you. Conversely, commit a transgression, and you will acquire an angel-accuser.
I would have let the words angel-accuser slip right on by, not wanting or needing an explanation but my writing group insisted on knowing more. So I was forced to delve deeper.
First thing I learned was the word Satan is the Hebrew word for accuser. Satan? No way! I wanted to write about angels, and now, I was being forced to research the devil! I am a full-blown Pollyanna. I believe in goodness, my glass overflowing and the sun always shinning. I do not believe in the devil: period, end of story.
Thank goodness, as I researched, I found myself taking a glorious sigh of relief. Judaism does not see Satan as the Christians do: a fallen angel who challenges G-d.
In Judaism, Satan is merely another angel whose mission is to be obedient and subservient to G-d. We believe Satan is our evil inclination, testing us, tempting us into sin and then testifying against us in the Heavenly court when we die. That is why, Satan is known as the accuser. He is also the Angel of Death charged with taking human souls from this world. There is no direct reference in the Hebrew Bible to the Angel of Death. We do, however, find many references in rabbinic literature.
Here is the important thing to remember, we do not have to bend to the will of this angel. We have free will, and we have the ability to fight all temptation.
Ok, enough. I am going to make sure I am surrounded by lots of angels. And so, I try and do good deeds and keep the bad stuff to a minimum. Sometimes, I am really good at it, and other times, not so good. That said, I want to share an event that happened to me just last week.
I live in Miami, and we have a lot of traffic. I mean big time traffic, the kind you see on TV and you think to yourself, I’m glad I don’t live there. Only, Miami is a glorious place to live, and so you keep coming, thus the horrific traffic. But forgive me for I digress.
So there I was inching along on the causeway that leads from Miami Beach to the mainland. There is a tiny Fiat in the lane next to me. The girl driving is texting, hitting the brake and then texting again. I kept glancing at her. In truth I was feeling somewhat self-righteous since I didn’t happen to be looking at my phone like I sometimes do. Then, to my horror, she turned around and spoke to what was obviously a young child sitting in a car seat. She then went back to her texting.
I went from upset to furious. The cars began to move a bit faster, and she was no longer next to me. Still, we were both going in the same direction and were now in an area with traffic lights. I was a madwoman on a mission. I kept trying to pull up next to her. I was going to give her a piece of my mind and rectify the situation. Finally, we were beside one another at a light. I motioned for her to lower her window. She did. Now, try and imagine what happened next.
“Do you love your baby?” I called from my car to hers.
She gave me the evil eye and yelled, “What are you talking about?”
“I said, “If you love your child, then put the phone down before you both get killed!” (Don’t you think that should have brought a good angel to my side?)
She shot me a dirty look and a bird, you know, a middle finger. What came out of my mouth next even mortified me. (one of the words began with an F). She screamed something back as her window went up.
I can assure you, that any good angels that were coming my way were shoved aside by the angel accuser. This story does not make me proud. In fact, it made me ashamed of myself. I tell you this because even when I try really hard to do nice things, I have to sometimes step back. I will continue to call in the angels and bully away those bad guys. And along the way, I hope I will learn to control my temper and my mouth.
After my conversation with the rabbi, I had lots of questions about angels: who are they and what are their jobs? Angels are defined as metaphysical beings—messengers of G-d. They are spiritual, but they have no free will. They can only do exactly what they have been commanded to do by their Creator. In our medieval rabbinic literature, it is said that every human being is assigned an angel (Pesikta Rabbati 44:8).
It is written that the Jewish soul surpasses that of the angel. The reason: angels have no free will. They do as they are instructed by G-d. Conversely, we do have freedom of choice. When we perform a mitzvah (a commandment), it is of greater value than that of the angels because we made the decision to act as G-d commanded.
According to Maimonides, the great Sephardic Torah scholar who lived from 1138-1204, angels have certain tasks. Some are dispatched on missions of kindness, and some are sent to heal. Some angels are even created by G-d as a result of our actions. I guess that means, if we do something really fabulous, angels can actually be created.
I can’t help but think about September 11, 2001. When those firefighters and police officers ran into those burning towers I know they created angels that carried them into heaven.
Whenever I hear the word angel, I immediately imagine a human form with wings. In fact, that is a description in Exodus 25:20 when the Jews are told how to make the Ark that will hold the Ten Commandments. The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another; [turned] toward the ark cover shall be the faces of the cherubim. (Exodus 25:20)
There are many other examples when angels are given a human form, but why? How else can we conceive the essence of angels? It is much the same when the Torah describes G-d as having a strong hand and outstretched arm. G-d does not have an arm. This is said, so we may begin to comprehend G-d’s might.
When you read the words heavenly court in the prayer book, it is referring to the heavenly court of angels. G-d makes the plans, and His angels carry them out. That is their job.
I love the following line. Read it once, and then let it sit with you for a moment. One thousand angels will sit at our Judgment Day. We need only one to vote for us to avoid punishment. They must all be unanimous to convict.
Even though, I don’t like the thought of punishment, it is said there are angels charged with executing G-d’s severe judgment. Severe judgment makes me cringe. What is a good Jew? Maybe by the end of this book I will have come a bit closer to that answer.
In HaTorah 2:7, it is noted that there are ten levels of angels, based on the angel’s comprehension of G-d. Until Maimonides, these varieties of angels were not described. It was believed we lacked a vocabulary able to define them.
I know what comes next might be pushing the envelope a bit. A few minutes ago, you may not have even known there were Jewish angels. Now I am telling you there are different levels of angels. Oy Veh! I have to admit, I am just beginning to try and embrace this notion, but it does fascinate me.
I actually did not intend to list Maimonides’ descriptions of the angels and their ranks, but I have to confess, I am a big fan of the man. Here goes my simplified version:
Chayos: Created to be G-d supporters. They are the highest level of angels. They are known for their great enlightenment.
Ophanim: They never sleep. They are prepared for action and guard G-d’s throne in heaven.
Areilim: Known for courage and understanding.
Chashmallim: Known for their love, kindness and grace.
Seraphim: Known for justice.
Malakhim: Known for their beauty and mercy.
Elokim: Commitment to the victory of good over evil.
Beni Elohim: Child-like, represent the pure ideals of transformation.
Cherubim: Known for helping people deal with sin that separates them from G-d so they can draw closer.
Ishim: Rank of angel closest to the level of human beings. Here to build G-d’s kingdom on Earth.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a modern day Reform rabbi of blessed memory, wrote the following, and I find no reason to try and improve on something this good.
Allow me to paraphrase: “In the Hebrew Bible, angels speak, sit, stand, walk and climb ladders. They fly, ride horses, use weapons, escort people to heaven, bring prophecy, dialogue with G-d, and act as G-d’s cabinet—as a sounding board and in advisory roles. The angels worship G-d and sing in G-d’s heavenly choir. They do G-d’s bidding, record our deeds in the Book of Life, carry divine messages, and act as heavenly janitors and security guards. Other angels lift people’s spirits and help people in time of need. They serve as G-d’s escort service to heavenly realms and even to death.”
I will close this chapter with a lovely midrash: No blade of grass grows without an angel telling it to grow. It is the Jewish belief that everything on earth has a spiritual counterpart—even a blade of grass has an angel insuring that it obtains nourishment and dies at its appointed time.
My prayer for you is that you will always be surrounded by mitzvah angels.