In what form does your angel appear?

by | Nov 8, 2013 | Torah Thought

Our generation’s teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, was fond of saying that Jews read the Torah the way a suitor reads a love letter from the beloved. We scrutinize it, scan its tiniest details, hoping for an ever-fuller understanding of what our beloved is allowing us to know.

So how do the Jewish lovers of God’s messages read the following story? “Jacob lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed, and there was a ladder set up on the earth, its top reaching heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:11-2).

The Rabbis pointed out the detail of the order of movement by the angels: the first ones are described as ascending, and the second ones, descending. That struck our readers as odd. If angels permanently live in Heaven, then the Bible ought to have used the order “descending and ascending,” not “ascending and descending.” The inference to be drawn is that there were already angels accompanying Jacob on his first journey from home into his unknown future. Those angels were being relieved by other angels, a changing of the guard that was appropriate for the new challenges he was about to face.

This past spring, at the Baccalaureate service for the graduating seniors of Norfolk Collegiate School, I wanted them to be appreciative of the lessons that their parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy, and other role models have already given them, and also to be sensitive to the ways in which they can integrate the guidance already theirs with the guidance they would soon encounter. I told them that angels come in all sorts of forms, and that we often fail to recognize their angelic nature. But, true to the Hebrew word “mal’akh” (angel), meaning “messenger,” if the contact serves to give them a message from our Divine Source, then they should appreciate the message and not get confused by an apparently unorthodox source. Their own personal angel may not have six wings, as did the angels in Isaiah, but the message might be just as spiritual.

The example I gave them was from my own undergraduate days, and it sufficed to keep their full attention. In my sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, I had a roommate, “Hank,” who was growing cannabis in our dorm room. I was uncomfortable with his action, but I did not then have the strength or experience to confront him. In those days, “pot” was tantamount to opposition to Vietnam, to Watergate, and to all the bogeymen of the Nixon era. I didn’t want the weed in my space, but I didn’t know how to insist that he desist.

An unlikely angel came to my rescue. This angel had grey fur and a flurry tail. One day, I came back from class, to see that my Persian cat, “Vega,” was looking a bit off. She was curled up on my bed, and when I touched her to pet her, she jumped up, nearly to the ceiling, and chased her tail for a full 10 minutes. Her pupils were totally dilated.

My suspicions were confirmed when “Hank” showed up later in the evening and told me that I owed him for the value of the plant that my cat had destroyed. I asked him how he intended to report the incident…. So he simply tried to hide his plant from Vega. But to no avail; a cat on the scent of the cousin of catnip will win that contest. A few days later, “Hank” walked up to my desk, said, “Michael, I’m not going to support your cat’s habit any longer!” and threw the stripped stalk of the plant into my garbage can. Vega sniffed the can avidly for the next few days, but the incident was over.

So don’t rush to judgment on who Jacob’s angels were, or who are your own. Be grateful if you have one, or many, in your life!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel