In Genesis 37:15 we read the story of how Joseph arrived in the town of Shechem in search of his brothers and his father’s flocks that they were pasturing. Joseph had been sent by his father Jacob to Shechem, not just to bring back word about his sheep and goats, but, primarily, to give Joseph a chance, away from his father’s presence, to reconcile with his brothers and to mend a relationship that had been sundered after Joseph’s arrogant dreams and Jacob’s lavish gifts to Joseph.
Joseph’s brothers were not in Shechem when he arrived there, and just before turning back, his mission unfulfilled, we read in the Torah, “a certain man found him and behold he was wandering in the field.” That man (or was he a man?) asked Joseph a two word question, ma t’vakesh, “What are you seeking?” Joseph answered the man, “I seek my brothers. Tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock.” The stranger (or was he a stranger?) said to Joseph, “They are departed hence; for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’”
And we must ask, “Why is this incident in the Torah at all?” Who cares if Joseph found his brothers in Shechem or Dothan or Brooklyn? Why would a narrative as concise and spare as the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, take time to recount Joseph’s false start in finding his brothers? The answer, of course, is to be found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. At the beginning of her journey Alice asks the Cheshire cat, “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat answers her, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Its too bad Joseph did not meet the cat. He might have realized that this great short question, ma t’vakesh, was not a question about the location of his brothers, but a question about the location of his life. And the stranger who met Joseph in the fields of Shechem may also have been deceived about the real purpose of their meeting. He may have thought that he was just helping a stranger find his flocks, but what he was really doing was helping the Jewish people find a future.
For consider this: If Joseph does not meet the stranger he returns home and is not sold into slavery in Egypt, which means that he would not have become a big shot in Egypt, which means that he would never have been able to provide a safe haven in Egypt for his family during the famine in Israel, which means that his family would not have become the Jewish people over four hundred years of slavery, which means that the Pharaoh would not have tried to oppress us, which means God would not have sent Moses to take us out of the house of bondage with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with many signs and wonders and through forty years of desert wanderings to the land flowing with milk and honey, which means that we would not have been able to establish a Jewish kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon who would build the temple in Jerusalem, which means it could not have been destroyed by the Babylonians who would exile us to Babylonian cities like Sura and Pumbadita where Jewish life could begin to create tools like the siddur and the Talmud to adapt Jewish life to the realities of diaspora existence which really began in earnest after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, which means that there never would have been the impetus for the rise of Christianity which saw the destruction of the Temple as a sign that they were now the new Israel, which means that Helena the mother of the Emperor Constantine could never have made Christianity the religion of the Byzantine Empire in 325, which means that Muhammad would never have organized the Arabs under the new religion of Islam to reclaim the holy sites which led to the Islamic empire of the eighth century which saved all the texts of the Greek philosophers because Greece and Rome were covered by drooling vandals and which gave us relative freedom, which means that the Christian leaders of Europe would not have turned against us as infidels like Pope Urban II who ordered the first crusade in 1095 where Crusaders massacred Jews in Worms and Speyer and Cologne and Mainz and like King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain who expelled us in 1492, which means that we would never have gotten to the Ottoman Empire just in time to open trading routes for the Sultan in Poland and begin the building of the vast and thriving Jewish life in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, which means that the Jews who fled Spain to the north would not have gotten to Amsterdam just in time to share the fruits of the Dutch East India Company’s voyages to the new world, finding places like Curacao, Martinique, Tobago, Barbados, and Jamaica which gave us a head start on getting all the good hotel rooms for the winter season, which means that when twenty-three Jews fleeing from the Inquisition in Recife Brazil landed in a Dutch colony at the mouth of the Hudson River called New Amsterdam in 1624 they would not have been let in because the governor of New Amsterdam was a raving anti-Semite named Peter Stuyvesant, however he received a fax from the Dutch East India Company saying in effect, “25 percent of the stock of this company is owned by Jews, are you nuts! Let the Jews in and treat them well, or you will be swabbing the deck on a pepper ship to Bombay,” to which Peter Stuyvesant responded, “What would New York be without Jews, welcome to America, please name a high school after me!” which means that when Eastern Europe got really dangerous because the industrial revolution never got there and the economies of Russia and Poland were collapsing and pogroms like Kishinev swept the area in 1904 we would not have been able to move to America, which means that we would not have been able to start the garment industry, and eventually Ratner’s, which means that we would not have been able to save a few bucks to find a nice apartment in Queens and move out of the tenements, which means that we would not have eventually decided that our kids need a yard and good schools, which means that we would not have been able to buy in the new Levitt development out at exit fifty of the Long Island Expressway in a place called Dix Hills which was really Melville but we called it Dix Hills because we thought it sounded tonier, and where Levitt sold some Jews a plot of land cheap to build a shul because he couldn’t get zoning to build a strip mall, and where the shul fifteen years ago said, “I think this guy Gellman will be good for us,” and where I said, “I think we will both be good for God” and where we were both right and where I have finally had a chance to explain to you that none of this would have happened if that stranger didn’t meet Joseph in the fields and didn’t ask him, ma t’vakesh, “What are you seeking?”
And what happened to Joseph in the fields happens to us in our lives. We meet angels and they change everything. The man who met Joseph in the fields of Shechem was of course not a man, he was an angel, or to say it more precisely, he was not only a man he was also an angel. Judaism has always taught that it is quite possible to be both at the same time.
The Bible is constantly confusing people with angels. Abraham receives three men into his house who suddenly deliver messages from God. Indeed the midrash recounts that the three men were three angels each with one errand (one to announce the birth of Isaac, one to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and one to save Lot) and the reason for this according to the midrash is that, “An angel is never sent on more than one errand at a time.” Jacob at the Jabbok River wrestled with a man who suddenly turns out to be an angel and this man/angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “one who wrestles with people and angels and who survives.”
The reason for this confusion is simple. In Hebrew, the word for angel is malach, which means “messenger,” and so for Judaism any person with a message from God is a malach, an angel. Now you must understand that there are two kinds of angels: the malachim, the angels who are human beings recruited into God’s messenger service, and then there are the angels who inhabit the olam habah, heaven, and who are not and who never were human beings. These heavenly angels also communicate with us but their main role is to be minions of the Holy One Blessed Be He who inhabit the world to come always hovering close to the divine presence. Angels like Gabriel or Uriel or Uziel or Michael have specific names and functions and personalities. The Bible describes two angels with fiery swords standing guard at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and other angels overpowered the prophet Ezekiel with powerful visions of a heavenly chariot, but they are all part of the malachai hasharet, the angels who serve God. These angels come equipped with wings and music and white robes and halos and with signs and fearful portents. They are very easy to spot in a crowd. They also tend to be terrifying. The poet Rilke wrote, “If the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us, our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.” So all in all it is a good thing that there is a division of labor amongst the angels.
The angel who met Joseph in the field was not winged or terrifying, he was just a messenger angel—a man who was also an angel from God. Joseph surely did not know that this man was an angel, and the man himself may not even have known, yet he was a malach, a messenger bearing a message from God that was both important and fragile. Important because it was a message from God and hearing it changed Joseph’s life, but fragile because Joseph might not have heard it. He could easily have dismissed the stranger’s directions to Dothan, figuring that he might have confused his brothers with some other shepherds heading that way. Angels present us with a message but also a choice—the choice of whether or not we can hear the message.
I know that you risk appearing like some kind of new age goofball if you say you believe in angels, but I do believe in angels along with all of Judaism up to those German rationalist Reform Jews who starting in Frankfurt in 1823 introduced a lot of good things into Judaism and also killed a lot of good things that were already in Judaism. What they killed was everything that did not fit with the historicist and rationalist and idealist philosophies of nineteenth-century Germany. The idea that God revealed the Torah was rejected, Jewish mysticism was rejected, the world to come was rejected, angels were rejected, indeed for a while having a Torah scroll in a Reform Temple was also rejected. Unless you think Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, and Kant are the last word of human wisdom, and that the Prussian state was the epitome of human culture, you are going to have to move on, as our movement itself has done, and reclaim the authentic Jewish beliefs our movement ignorantly rejected and in doing so left us naked to the worst predations of secular humanism, positivism, and the spiritually desiccating equation of Judaism with political activism.
I want you now to reconsider your naive and erroneous belief that angels do not exist. If God’s care and love for us is so strong that even the death of our bodies will not end that love, then the olam habah is real, and similarly if God did speak to us somehow someway through the Torah it is just not reasonable that the Torah is God’s last word to us. God needs a way to speak to us, to chastise us, to direct us, to encourage us, and to nudge us. God has given each of us unique gifts, and God needs, from time to time, to show us how to use those gifts to help the world. One of the ways God does this is by sending angels into our lives to ask us the great short questions. Lincoln referred to “the better angels of our nature” and he was just right.
Look around you. Even in this secular culture we are in the middle of a literary and cultural angel explosion. Surveys indicate that almost 70 percent of Americans believe in angels. Five of the ten best selling paperback books are about angels. Tony Kushner won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Angels in America, in which an angel visits a man with AIDS. Harvard Divinity School even has a course on angels (which I will admit is one powerful argument against their existence).
But I do not believe in angels because the survey data support belief in them. I believe in angels because the Torah and our sages teach us that angels are real, and I believe in angels because I have met them just like Joseph met one in the fields of Shechem, and so have each and every one of you.
I want you to think about the angels who have come into your life. I want you to call to mind right now, among all the thousands of people you have met, those handful of people who clearly and absolutely changed your life for the better—not just parents and family, but often total strangers whose simple advice or gift or suggestion or admonition or question changed you forever. Perhaps it was the person who first gave you a book about science and sent you off on the road to become a scientist. Perhaps the person who told you that you would make a good lawyer or teacher or mother or friend or confidant at just the time when you had no intention of becoming anything like that. Perhaps it was the person who told you to watch out at just the time you needed to watch out. Perhaps it was the prayer in a hospital of a stranger who nobody saw on the floor but who came to your bedside and said everything is going to be all right and then it was all right even if the doctors did not understand why or how.
When we are about to lose our way it seems to me absolutely obvious and unarguably true that God will send someone into the fields of our lives to ask us, ma t’vakesh, “What are you looking for?” If there is such a God, and there is, then there are angels and there is a life after death where we will meet all of them and then you can slap your spiritual foreheads in wonder and say, “It was all true. Everything that Rabbi Gellman ever taught us was true.” That is when you will know for sure what you may have some doubts about now, that there are angels sent to us by God along our way in this life, so that we will get the message that God would not give each of us special and unique blessings unless God wanted those blessings to be used.
Another purpose for angels is that God always needs to teach us how to listen better. Angels teach us how to listen because if you know that every person you meet might be an angel, you are going to listen to that person not just with the ears in your head but with ears in your soul. This is the reason I give to beggars. I know that my coins and dollars have probably bought crack and booze, but I still give because my money might, just might, have bought some baby food or diapers or soup, and I can’t take the chance that I have stiffed an angel. Indeed rabbinic legends teach us that the Messiah will appear on earth as a beggar waiting for some act of kindness by a stranger before announcing himself. If you can learn to see street bums as potential Messiahs, you can learn to see angels when they meet you in the fields of your life.
I want you to leave here and do something. I want you to write a letter to your angels. I want you to try to find a person/angel who came into your life at just the right time, and I want you to write that person a letter and say in your own words, thank you for appearing in my life and for changing everything for the good, for helping me to find what I did not even know I was looking for.
And then some day when I pray you are 120 and God takes your breath away, and your soul begins its glorious eternal life in the world to come, when the two angels with the fiery swords guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden, the portal through which all souls must pass, say to your soul, “You can go right in,” and when you arrive safely in the place where there are no questions only answers, no pain only love, no death only life, then this is what will happen, I believe. All the angels who have appeared in your life will appear before you then, and some of them will be holding the letter you wrote to them after this yontif, and they will embrace you, and you will know why, and they will say, and you will hear, “I didn’t need the letter, but thank you anyway. Now let me tell you everything.”
And they will tell you everything as they lead you into the green pastures beside the still waters where all the flocks have come home to rest and where all brothers and sisters and parents and children have found each other at last. They will explain that this is the place you have been looking for ever since the day you realized that the world is full of angels.
Ma t’vakesh. “What are you looking for?”
Marc Gellman is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, New York and author (with Monsignor Thomas Hartman) of How Do You Spell God? An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a sermon for the Jewish High Holy Days.