Shabbat VaYishlakh: Angels Among Us

Do we believe in angels? It surprises me how often I am asked that question – that, or another one that asks about the “we” of Jews, and the “supposed to” of our beliefs. When you think about it, the whole idea that you are “supposed” to “believe” is already a curiosity. More, it is a non-sequitur: one believes, or one does not. 

True, any religion sets forth tenets for belief. That is the official level of a religion’s teachings.Then there are the traditional folk beliefs, what you might call the comfortable level, or the superstitious level, of religion. What, then, is the official status of angels in Judaism? In other words, Does Judaism expect a Jew to believe in angels?

Yes and no, and yes again.

Yes: we can clearly see in the parashat hashavua for this week, VaYishlakh, that the Torah does make reference to angels. Or, at least, it looks that way in the English translation. This leads us to a good rule of thumb for exploration of Jewish belief: don’t settle for the translation. As David Ben Gurion warned, “reading the Torah in translation is like kissing your beloved through a handkerchief”. You may not be able to read the ancient Hebrew of the Torah fluently, but remember that there is always more depth than we can access on the surface, and searching out the deeper meaning of a word, a phrase or a belief may be as close to you as inquiring after the Hebrew terminology.

No: the word for “angel” in Hebrew is mal’akh, which translates from the Hebrew simply as “messenger”. Our parashah this week begins VaYishlakh Ya’akov mal’akhim, “Jacob sent messengers.” The plain sense of the Torah is that he sent people from his large encampment, probably young men, fleet of foot, to run before him and carry a message. Why is the very same word then sometimes translated “angels”? It depends upon the dispatcher: if G-d sends a messenger, it’s an angel. Probably with big wings, maybe even breathing fire and smoke (in his prophecies, Isaiah tells the story of just such a vision). Or perhaps simply a being in human shape, such as the messenger from G-d who struggles with Jacob by the Jabok River all night long, and insists on disappearing at daybreak, on the night before Jacob sees his estranged brother for the first time in twenty-some years. Or a perfectly-normal seeming human being who shows up in a field (we never learn his name or see him again) simply to tell Joseph to turn south in order to find his brothers (stay tuned for that one).

Yes: how is an angel a messenger? Our tradition teaches that it’s the other way around: a messenger might be an angel. If we define “angel” as “messenger of G-d” then everyone we meet might be such a carrier of a truth we need to learn. We ourselves are at any moment also such an angel, for we, in our normal human undertakings, are potentially bearing some word, some thought, some message that someone else needs to hear. As one rabbi put it, it is as if:

Each of us is a puzzle, to ourselves as to those around us. We are each a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, and we go through our lives aware that something is missing, but not knowing what it is, nor quite how to fill the holes in our own souls. Then we meet another person, and in the interchange between us, we may suddenly feel that we are more whole than we were. We know something now that we never did before, or we feel a bit more complete in ourselves. Or – and this we will never know – some word, some act, of our own may bring that same sense of being a bit more complete than before to our interlocutor.

Yes, there are winged creatures in our ancient tradition (you are allowed to chalk that up to artistic imagination, you are not required to believe in them), but also quite normal looking messengers also.

Yes, you are required to keep in mind that here are angels among us, and that you yourself are such a messenger, and to live your life aware of that gift that you carry, and that others carry for you.

Thanksgiving, the annual American day of thanks, has passed once again.Thank G-d for Shabbat, when we are reminded weekly to give thanks for all the gifts carried by all the messengers of our lives.

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Shabbat VaYetze: Trans Torah on Trans Day of Remembrance

On Shabbat VaYetze we read of Jacob’s leaving his family under threat of death from his brother. His escape is hurried and frightened, and his path traces an ironic reversal of Abraham’s, as Jacob has to leave his family home, the homeland promised to his grandfather’s and father’s descendants, and his people just to survive.

At this point in the story, Jacob is alone, hunted, and vulnerable. He will survive and thrive, and he does so because he successfully transitions from who he thought he was to be, in order to find who he was really meant to be. In the process he will become so fundamentally different that he will become known by an entirely new name. But this new sense of self, and the ability it will bring with it to reconnect to family and to create his own family, is a long, difficult struggle.

It could have been much different. In his lonely vulnerability, Jacob could easily have been killed. This parashat hashavua is well suited to today’s date. Today, November 20, is recognized as International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to commemorate and honor people who are murdered for being who they are – because their gender identities do not fit within the constrictions of their cultures. Although there are records of people throughout history and around the world who lived outside of the gender binary (a polarized construction of ‘masculine males’ and ‘feminine females’), in our own, less tolerant place and times, these people are subject to scrutiny, oppression, discrimination, assault, and sometimes even murder. 

Why take a day to focus on something so heart-wrenching, when there is so much to celebrate about transgender visibility and wellbeing? We can see famous actors, musicians, and athletes share their gender-variant lives. The White House hired the first openly transgender staff person, and President Obama included trans people in his ‘State of the Union’ address. This year Oregon became one of the first states to ensure that trans people can benefit from medical coverage they were previously excluded from receiving. Multnomah County made a commitment to gender-accessible bathrooms. And out and proud trans people play vital roles within our shul. 

But in 2015 alone, 24 trans people, disproportionately women of color, were murdered due to transphobic violence. Worldwide, one trans person is murdered every three days. In the United States and in other countries, the people who bear the brunt of societal discomfort with ‘atypical’ gender expression are overwhelmingly trans women, those who live partly or completely outside of the male sex they were assigned at birth. These women are often poor, often people of color, forced outside the safety networks that many take for granted. Trans and gender-variant people are more likely to be ostracized from their families, discriminated against at work and school, living in poverty, profiled by police and dragged into criminal systems. 

As we know, and can see playing out on the national stage, religious communities have a powerful opportunity to influence either the welcome and affirmation of trans and gender-variant people, or their rejection and marginalization. Our Jewish tradition recognizes the reality of people who lives outside of the gender binary – but most of us are never told those stories. Nor should we really need to hear them in order to finally learn the basic lesson that G-d created all of us, and we all reflect G-d’s image, equally precious beings, all needed to bring about the better world we long to live in.

According to our tradition, Jacob had to journey to Haran, where his grandfather lived (with a name which also means “anger” in Hebrew) and through Mt Moriah, where his father was almost killed by his grandfather. Although he may have left home to try to escape his family, Jewish teaching makes clear that we transition from who we are to who we are meant to be only by walking a path which leads through, not around, those from whom we inherit so much of the puzzle of who we are.

All of us transition in our lives; all of us weather changes in our world. Like Jacob, we have a long, difficult road before we truly become the Israel we are meant to be: unafraid to be compassionate, aware of our own strength, with no further need to be angry – and able to fully love.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: A Mitzvah Abraham Overlooked

The strain of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, in last week’s parashah, is too much for Sarah, according to the Midrash. This week’s parashah, named for her, 

begins with the announcement of her death. Immediately after the initial mourning which is Abraham’s purely human response, he has to pull it together. Why? Because after all these years living in the Land promised to their descendants, Sarah and Abraham apparently had never settled down. 

They didn’t own any land. As a result, in the midst of his mourning, Abraham had to set about identifying and purchasing a burial plot for Sarah. There is possibly nothing more stressful than trying to figure out burial arrangements for a loved one in the immediately aftermath of death. Why had Abraham and Sarah not considered this? True, Jewish law requires us to consider a person to be living in every way until the moment of death, and, also true, there’s a wide streak of superstition in our tradition. A people that won’t move the baby furniture in until after the birth is similarly, perhaps, disinclined toward planning ahead for death.

Yet Rabban Gamaliel, one of the greatest Rabbis of the Talmudic Era, did so in a very deliberate way, in order to make an ethical point. Funerals in his day were very showy, which caused financial strain and social resentment in his community. He – a rich man – mandated that he would be buried in an undyed linen shroud, in a plain pine box. He was able to discern the potential of a mitzvah not yet articulated, and his example echoes all the way to us, who still consider simple burial to be the highest form of dignity.

As well, there is potential for an overlooked mitzvah within the story of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Makhpelah for a burial place. It is the mitzvah of pre-planning. This mitzvah requires each of us to exercise our empathy. How will your loved ones feel when you die? How might they feel if they were to find that you had not left for them the questions “what would she want?” too often answered by “how should I know?” 

It is said that caring for our dead is the most altrustic mitzvah, since the dead cannot thank us. Similarly, taking care of our own after-death arrangements is perhaps the greatest gift we can send after we’re gone.