I just came back from New York.
On one occasion I was walking down the street with my son, Avi. Avi is a clinical social worker, now with a private practice in Park Slope. Earlier in his career he worked at a halfway house in one of the most poor and dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was a time when drug addicts on the streets were more common then what we see now.
On Wednesday we were walking down the street and passed a sad looking homeless man. He was talking to himself loudly and angrily. We walked by. Avi said to me, “I’m glad you have learned not to stop and talk with everyone you pass on the street.”
You see, I lived in safer times and I developed a habit of saying hello to people I see. Strangers interest me. I have internalized a Jewish law which states that we are obligated to say hello first!
Anyway, when my kids were young they were both fascinated and bothered by this. It took too much time. But I said to them, you never know who you will encounter and what world it can open; you never know what you’ll learn. Maybe you’ll meet an angel!
Years later when Avi was working in Bedford Stuyvesant he warned me about this practice. When you are dealing with desperate drug addicts or psychotics you place yourself in danger. So last week we laughed as Avi said: I see you have learned.
But this doesn’t take away from the other side of this equation. It’s the side that says you never know who you might meet, what you might learn, or even how you may be inspired. As with everything else, discretion is needed. You never know… you might meet an angel.
This doesn’t always have to do with real people. Sometimes it has to do with who or what we meet in a dream.
I thought about speaking about something very different today, but I had a ride home with an inspirational Uber driver yesterday that came as a sign to speak about this. This, combined with my conversation with Avi and my own history, created a sense that I have to do this today!
One more thing… the Torah reading of today. In it, Jacob is running from his brother to Haran. He lies down in the middle of nowhere and has a dream. You know the dream. There is a ladder from heaven to earth and there are angels climbing up and down. The angels accompany Jacob on his journey and, like good angels, they are messengers of God.
So today I want to speak about angels. I want to share, perhaps again, stories of angels that appeared in my life. And I want to look at angels from our tradition.
A few weeks ago Abraham and Sarah were visited by angels. They were Malachim, messengers of God. They came to visit Abraham to tell him a message of good news… he and Sarah, in their old age, would have a son. Were these angels in the form of men or not? We’re not sure.
An angel appears to Moses later in the Torah, out of the burning bush. We don’t know that it looked like anything.
Belief in angels in the ancient world was quite common. They often could fly. They would appear and disappear. They delivered messages. They were slightly superior to human beings and a little inferior to God.
The rabbis also spoke about angels. They tell a midrash of angels fighting about whether or not human beings should be created. Some say angels only live a day. And there’s a beautiful tradition which we repeat when we sing: Shalom Aleichem, Malachi Hashareit Malachei El-yon. We welcome the angels to our Shabbat table and we sing that well-known and beautiful song. It was taught that angels accompanied us home on our walk from shul and protected us.
In the Middle Ages Rambam said that angels were forms of intelligence. Through them, God ruled the world. Rambam taught that if God wanted to send a message, He did so through a person’s mind or intelligence. In that process of thought there was an angel.
Modern man sees this as a part of ancient mythology, or sees this as metaphor for the vehicles of understanding.
So leaving the realm of the scholar or the rational thinker, let me share a few stories. Each of them speaks to an aspect of angels.
The first story occurred to me yesterday.
My driver was named Mohamed. He was an African American from the Ivory Coast of Africa. I asked him if he would indulge in a conversation about black Muslims in this country. He said, rather distrusting, “No, Sir, we are not terrorists.”
“That’s not where I was going,” I said. I told him about my friend Haroom Moghul who was here last week and taught me about the diversity in the Islamic community. We spoke about the black Muslims and the Nation of Islam.
Then the driver told me he did not want to engage in politics. He was a loving man – a family man, and a man who was concerned about peace in his heart, in our nation and in the world.
We spoke about different types of religious experiences. He then said after a while that he wanted to share something. He told me about his dreams of angels. Years ago he was embraced by three angels… Michael, Gabriel and Ariel. They told him that his peace would be found in living a life of faith, staying away from alcohol and drugs, being honest in every business deal and loyal to his wife.
That would bring him rewards… the reward of inner peace and the reward of eternal life. He described in detail the physical appearance of the angels, their glowing presence and the emanation of light, and spoke about his sadness when he woke up. But he took their message seriously. He works hard, loves his children and his wife and lives a religious life. He prays five times a day.
And I was thinking about speaking of angels. He spoke to me about his angels. He has been revisited in his dreams by visions of holiness and God and being in a garden surrounded by light.
He said, “What’s crazy, is, I’m a normal guy. But this happened to me when I slept.” He spoke about the fear he has of the end of his life and whether there will be rewards. I told him about this week’s Parshah. I told him about Jacob’s dream and the promise that if we walked with God, and followed his ways we would be protected. I said that there are no assurances from disease or accidents or death itself – we know that – but if you walk with God, like Jacob, he will send his peace and protection. Pretty incredible that this ride was yesterday, when I was hesitant to speak of angels.
And that leads me to two of my own angel stories. With your permission; I believe at one time or another I have told these. But maybe there are some here who never heard them… or most who may have forgotten.
The first encounter gave me the most potent Torah lesson I know and have to remind myself about now and then.
Here’s the story…
I was taking oral Talmud finals at JTS and
travelling from central Jersey to Penn Station.
It was freezing cold; just before Christmas.
Busy train, only one place with two empty seats next to each other.
I got on with a big volume of my Talmud.
Finding the two empty seats I spread out to cram for the test.
Two stops later on walk a homeless guy, ratty, tattered wool coat.
Woolen Hat with holes
Carrying two big Plastic bags
And plastic bags over his feet
One empty seat… next to me
And I think… now I’m done. The last bit of cramming won’t take place.
And so he sits down…
What’s that? He asks.
It’s a Talmud I respond.
What’s the Language?
Hebrew and Aramaic.
I continue; it’s Rabbinic literature developed after the destruction of the Temple.
Oh no! He says with great disappointment. When did that happen?
I told him 2,000 years ago.
Do you know the Katz’s? He asked.
They’d work in the Temple, in Montreal. I told him no and He said. Then he says
Sprechens, a bisle Yiddish?
Then he said…
“I’m ein ani li mi li”?
The train stopped in Newark. He got off quickly.
I never asked him his name.
And I remembered these words…
Derech eretz Kedma laTorah.
And he taught them to me.
And I’ll never forget them or that moment.
And I believe that it was an angel that taught me everyone needs to be treated with respect.
Story two… not as profound.
Preparing for neck surgery
About ten yards from me
Stares at me
Stretched his neck
Around and around
And flies away
And I said… I received a sign. It was from an angel with wings.
So my sense is the universe does provide comfort and inspiration. It’s up to us to keep our eyes open. Because if it has wings, it can quickly fly away!