I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, MI last Shabbat.
SERMON FOR PARASHAT VAYETZE NOVEMBER 21, 2015
This morning, I want to talk with you about angels. Then, we’ll turn to the real world.
Whether you regard angels in a literary or metaphoric or mythic sense, their role as messengers of God is worthy of serious consideration. And, angels play a major role in the life of Jacob, beginning in this parasha with the story of our patriarch’s dream of a ladder reaching up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending.
A prominent traditional rabbinic interpretation of Jacob’s dream is that he is witnessing the “changing of the guard”. The angels who have protected him within the land of Canaan are returning to the heavens while those who will protect him outside the land are taking their positions. The dream is seen as an assurance by God that Jacob will be protected in his travels outside of Canaan as he was inside the land.
In the dream, the angels are ascending and descending and this brings up a question: Was there any overlap? Was there ever any moment when both sets of angels were directly accompanying Jacob? I would assume that there would have to be such an overlap even for only a short moment as otherwise, there would have been the possibility that Jacob would have been left defenseless even only for a moment.
This question of “overlapping angels” may be reflected in the song Shalom Aleichem. This song is based on the tradition that angels accompany us in our homes on erev Shabbat and therefore we must greet them properly with words of greeting. But, it is odd that in the second verse we welcome the angles with boachem lishalom, “come in peace” and then, in the third verse, we say tzeitchem lishalom, “go in peace”. Why would we give the angels the traditional greeting of farewell when they have just arrived?
There are several answers to this question but the one that I prefer is that we are in fact saying goodbye to different angels: the angels who have been with us through the week who now are returning to the heavens after the long 6 days of work. We say, “go in peace”, have a good rest and come back after Shabbat. Note though that we do not say goodbye to them until we have welcomed the Shabbat angels. There is overlap. We are never left without angels. Messengers of God are always around us.
This idea of two different sets of angels is found in another rabbinic context as well. There is a lovely legend that when God sought to create the human being, two sets of angels argued about the plan. One group said that God should create the human being because we would be capable of doing acts of kindness and justice. The other group said God should not create human beings because of the evil that would arise from our actions. God, chooses to creat the human being in hopes that the good will outweigh the bad.
There is another piece to the argument of the angels against creating the human being. The role of the angel was to do on earth what God can not do: to be messengers of God on earth. Therefore, the angels did not want the human being to be created because they sensed their role would be diminished. And, they were correct. It has been diminished Whatever you believe about angles, the fact is that we are God’s angels. Human beings are the ones who are to do God’s work. We are God’s messengers on earth. But, as was pointed out in one of the recent lectures in our Hartman Institute series on Dilemmas of Faith, the difference between human beings and angels is that human beings can say “no”. We can refuse to do God’s work while angels had no choice.
The debate between the angels about whether God should or should not create human beings is a reflection of the tension between what we call the yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and the yetzer hara , the bad inclination, a struggle that our tradition believes goes on inside each of us. This struggle accompanies us always and the strong person, according to Pirke Avot, is the one who conquers his or her evil inclination.
But, according to at least one rabbinic text, the yetzer hara is not necessarily the inclination to do evil. It is rather seen as the self-centered inclination, the self-protecting inclination. We read in Bereshit Rabbah that even the yetzer hare has its place for it not for the yetzer hara, no one would build a home or choose a profession which would provide them their needs. Yetzer hatov becomes the altruistic inclination and yetzer hara becomes the self-protecting inclination and both are needed in a life. There needs to be overlap of altruism and concern for self.
And now let us turn away from angels and turn to the real world.
I am sympathetic to the persepctive that led Governor Snyder and many other governors, politicians and private citizens to decide that this is not the time to welcome Syrian refugees into our country. I understand their fears and I do not say that lightly. Their concern that our security structures are not proficient enough to weed out any individuals or groups capable of performing the kind of horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris or Beirut or Turkey or so many other places in our world is worth consideration. It didn’t take the attacks in Paris to prove that adherents of this horribly perverse way of thinking and acting are a threat to our communities and our nation as well. And, it is natural and reasonable for a Governor to see his or her role as protecting our self-interest, to listen to his or her yetzer hara rather than the yetzer hatov.
But, while it may be reasonable to be concerned, the proposal to close the doors on Syrian refugees is shortsighted, inappropriate and wrong. It is based on misleading claims and exaggerated fears concerning the refugee population. And, as this proposal has gained momentum, the rhetoric has turned increasingly racist and cruel and that is shameful.
We should care about protecting ourselves but we need to listen to our yetzer hatov, to our good and altruistic inclination as well. We need to be God’s angels on earth, doing the work of saving and enhancing lives. We need to find a way, even given our fears, to respect and continue our commitment to those in need. We cannot look into the eyes of these people who have been so horribly victimized and just close our doors. It is wrong for a country which speaks of being a source of good in the world. And, here, I want to commend our local Jewish Family Service and HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society which has rescued so many people, Jews and non-Jews in the past for committing to continuing to support and welcome, after proper security checks, Syrian refugees to this country.
Our angels must overlap. We can honor the inclination to self-protection while not dismissing the inclination that inspires us to care for the huddled masses who have been through such horrors. We need to listen to our better angels and continue to find a way, despite our fears, to reach out our hand to those whom we can help.
We all have concerns about the state of the world but those fears can not undermine our basic sense of humanity.
We can not close our hearts. We can not close our doors.