Parashah Ponderings

What Kind of Compliment Is “You’re Such an Angel”?

Parashat Mishpatim / פרשת משפטים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

All my life I’ve heard it said of kind, generous people that they are “angels.” Children who are especially loving are “angels.” The man who gives selflessly of his time and energy to help others is “an angel.” The wealthy woman who donates millions of dollars to charity is “an angel.” If an angel is one who carries out God’s will to make the world a better place, then we truly have angels all around us. Given the brokenness of the world in which we live, we could certainly use many, many more.

By calling someone an “angel” we recognize the actions of extraordinary people, if not their very beings, as holy. That said, there is an aspect of the heavenly angels, to which we intend to compare these beloved individuals, that, to my mind, is actually unflattering and terribly problematic. According to the sages, each angel in our sacred literature is tasked with one function, and one function only. Angels in the Torah, whether heavenly or human, are inherently narrow-minded, inflexible and unfeeling. They are unable to do anything that God hasn’t specifically instructed them to do, and they are incapable of operating from a place of discernment or conscience.

Take, for example, the malach, the angel, in this week’s reading, Parashat Mishpatim. Once God has finished enumerating a host of commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, God renews the promise to bring the Israelites into Canaan, appointing an angel to guard the Israelites on their way and upon entering the land:

I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. (Exodus 23:20-22)

Who is this angel and what is his purpose in “guarding” Israel? More importantly, if God’s name is “in him” and God is “el rachum ve’hanun,” a compassionate, merciful God (Exodus 34:6-7) who shows forgiveness, why isn’t this angel able to pardon Israel’s offenses? If Israel should defy the angel or, worse, God — as we know she does later through building a golden calf at the foot of the mountain while Moses remains encamped with God at the top of the mountain (Exodus 32) – are we to believe that this angel will essentially abandon Israel in battle?

To answer these questions, let us take a look at Genesis 18. There, three messengers come to Abraham and Sarah to inform Sarah that she will soon give birth; to heal Abraham after his circumcision; and to destroy the city of Sodom. According to rabbinic lore, the angels were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, each of whom was assigned sole responsibility respectively for the aforementioned tasks (Talmud Bava Metzia 86b). In his commentary on Genesis 18:2, Rashi writes plainly, “One angel does not perform two errands.” Thus, like Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, the angel that will “guard” Israel on her journey has only this errand to perform: to guard Israel, nothing more.

Because the angel of Exodus 23 has only to guard Israel from harm, it cannot also judge Israel and pardon or, for that matter, condemn her for her offenses. Rashi comments on Exodus 23:21: “He has been sent on a specific mission and can only perform that duty.” The angel can either guard Israel in battle or not. If not, the angel would simple be recalled to the heavenly realm and Israel would be left to fend for itself with disastrous consequences. The one to judge and either pardon or condemn would be God, not the angel.

Another explanation given by Rashi for why the angel cannot pardon Israel is that angels have no conception of what it means to pardon. He comments on Exodus 23:21: “(The angel) has no experience in doing so, for he is a member of the class of beings that never sins.” Even if the angel could perform more than one task, he couldn’t possibly do something outside his realm of comprehension.

Who is the single-minded angel charged with guarding Israel? According to Nachmanides, another medieval commentator, “Our sages call him Metatron, the one who shows the way” (commentary to 23:20). Here Nachmanides ascribes to Metatron the task of guiding, not guarding, Israel through the wilderness, which, to be sure, is another plausible interpretation of the Hebrew for “to guard you” lishmorcha.” In any case, Metatron is never named in the Torah, but only in later literature. For example, in the pseudepigraphical work 3 Enoch, Metatron guides the author on a mystical tour of heaven. In the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, Metatron is depicted as the very guide for Israel in the wilderness that we read about in this week’s portion.

Given the unswerving, pre-programmed, other-worldly nature of Metatron and his fellow angels, we have to wonder if calling someone an angel is, indeed, a compliment. It is in the sense that people who add blessing to our lives appear to us as messengers from God. The compliment turns sour, though, when we consider that the angels of the Torah can only do one thing and that without a conscience. The Torah’s angels simply do what God tells them to do without having the capacity to discern between right and wrong. The human angels that we experience in our world, on the other hand, are often complex individuals motivated by compassion, justice, and other noble intentions, and to compare them with such limited beings at Metatron strikes me as insulting.

I am not suggesting eliminating the use of the term “angel” from our lexicon of accolades. Surely, to see any human being as an agent of the Divine is to bestow upon that person high praise. Rather, let’s just be sure to give credit where credit is due; the loving child, the generous man, and the altruistic woman deserve far more glory than even God’s heavenly agents.

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