By Shlomo Riskin ~
“And a man found him, when he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him ‘What are you seeking?’ And he said, ‘I am seeking my brothers.’” (Genesis 37:15)
What is an angel, and what role do angels play in Jewish tradition? Perhaps we can find an explanation in part of the tale of Joseph and his brothers. The Bible has described Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph, son of his beloved wife Rachel, and the jealous hatred the other brothers felt as a result. It has told us of Jacob’s request of Joseph that he make a journey to check on the welfare of the brothers who are herding sheep in Shechem.
Joseph accepts his father’s assignment, but he cannot find his brothers. An anonymous “man” finds Joseph wandering and, after ascertaining the nature of his mission, directs him to Dothan. When Joseph’s brothers see him there, they cast him into a pit and the drama of Joseph and his brothers begins in earnest.
Who is this anonymous individual who directs Joseph to his destiny? Rashi maintains that “this is the [angel] Gabriel” (literally, man of God). What kind of “man” was he? A winged creature moving between heaven and earth who managed to conceal his heavenly accessories? Or was he rather a Superman who appeared to Joseph as the harmless and mortal Clark Kent?
Nahmanides (the Ramban) completes the picture: “This story comes to further elucidate that the decree of God is truth and human effort is false.” He explains that God prepared a guide for Joseph without his knowledge to bring Joseph into the brothers’ hands. “And this is what our sages mean when they say that these ‘men’ are angels, for it was not for naught that this tale was told, but only to inform us that the will of God will stand supreme.”
The Ramban is saying that while we are given freedom to act as we wish, God’s ultimate plan will ultimately come about. God will utilize human beings – often without their knowledge – to bring about His design. In this instance, Joseph had to get to Egypt, rise to prominence and thereby rescue his family, starting the cycle which would lead to our servitude in Egypt, eventual redemption from there, and entry into the Promised Land.
Since this could never have occurred without Joseph meeting his brothers in Dothan, the individual who gave him the directions to get to his brothers – thereby facilitating God’s design — is, in hindsight, seen as an angel or divine messenger. I believe that God is constantly dispatching such mortal angels in order to help bring about His will in the world, and it is critical that those of us who come in contact with such agents take advantage of the opportunities they present.
Allow me to give one national and one personal example. An Israeli pilot recounted that three years after the Six Day War, Syria began dangerous provocations. He was ordered to fly a plane at supersonic speed extremely low over the main business section in Aleppo in order to send a warning to the Syrian government as well as the population. He carried out his mission successfully, and the provocation stopped. Ten years later, this same pilot was driving from Haifa to Tel Aviv when he picked up a hitchhiker in IDF uniform. He discovered that his passenger was a Syrian Jew whose family had made aliya by walking all the way from Aleppo about 10 years previously. The hitchhiking soldier recounted the following story:
“I was just bar mitzvah when one night an Israeli plane flew over the business section in Aleppo right near our home. The supersonic boom was deafening; it scared us all. Moreover, the glass frontage of the stores crashed to the floor, and although no one was physically hurt, the damage was considerable. But it was a great miracle, since only the Syrian stores had their glass windows broken; nothing happened to the Jewish stores. As a result, my father decided it was time to leave Syria and come to our real homeland. Many other Jewish families did the same.”
Despite the fact that the pilot had certainly been an “angel,” the reason for the salvation of the Jewish stores was quite logical. The Syrians didn’t allow Jewish businessmen to front their stores on the main street, but only on side streets. And since the jet flew parallel to the main street, the Jewish shops were not affected.
The personal story: A girl from an assimilated Jewish family visited Germany with her school and, having studied the Holocaust there, asked her parents if she could spend the following summer in Israel. Her mother, who had never entered a synagogue, inquired about trips to Israel at the local Conservative center. “Is your daughter observant?” asked the executive director. The mother misunderstood the question, taking “observant” to mean alert and attentive rather than religiously observant. So she responded, “My daughter is very observant!” The director promptly signed the girl up for a Yeshiva University tour of Israel. The director was my angel because that young daughter became my wife!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.