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Making Angels | Vayishlach, 5780

12/17/2019 11:23:10 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

I would like to encourage everyone to join with me in attending a memorial service on Friday December 20, at the New York Ave Presbyterian Church.  This memorial service is an annual event held on the date closest to the Winter Solstice and its purpose is to honor and remember those who died during the year without the dignity of living in a home.

Typically I do not enter into houses of worship of other faiths unless there is a great communal need.  In this instance I believe the need is a matter of life and death, as we must use our energy and resources to advocate for the welfare of those who are without homes.

The powerlessness and dehumanization that accompanies being thrown out of one’s home is a major theme of the Genesis narrative of Yaakov.

At the beginning of our portion, Yaakov is returning to his brother Esav and he says, “Im lavan garti, I was living with Lavan” (32:5).  Rashi interprets this to mean, “I lived with Lavan and I did not become  a distinguished person. I was a refugee (ger).”  Our great patriarch, Yaakov had wealth and a large family but since he was displaced from his home he felt unimportant.  

The pain and loss of dignity that accompanies homelessness is something unimaginable to many of us.

And yet, it is our responsibility to imagine it.  We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. As religious people and as a spiritual community, one of our primary responsibilities is to help those in need—and who is more in need than the one who does not even have a home.  And I want to be clear: this is not something foreign to our own inner community. Many of you might not realize this but on a given Shabbat there are at least half a dozen people in our room praying with us who are either currently without a permanent home, were once without a home, or are right now dangerously close to being without a home and are in desperate need of help.

I draw a lesson about this from our parasha.

One of the themes of Yaakov’s life is his interaction with angels (malachim).  Our parasha begins with the words, “Vayishlach Yaakov malachim lefanav el esav achiv, Yaakov sent malachim in front of him towards his brother Esav” (32:4).  Rashi says, “malachim mamash, actual angels.”  So Yaakov sent actual angels to Esav.

This interpretation raises many difficult questions.

Why did he have to send an angel?  Shouldn’t an angel be reserved for something supernatural?  And, anyways, WHAT IS AN ANGEL?

Before suggesting an answer to these questions, there is a passage about angels in the Talmud, which is relevant to the topic of homelessness.

The Talmud tells us that every Friday night 2 angels escort a person home from synagogue—one is good and one is bad.  And when the angels come to the house and see the lit candles, and a set table, and clean house, the good angel says, “May it be so next week as well.” And the bad angel must say, “Amen.”  On the other hand, if that is not how the house looks, then the bad angel says, “May it be so next week as well.” And the good angel must say, “Amen” (Shabbat, 119b).

This story has many themes worthy of exploring in other contexts, but for now I want to highlight that it is the basis for the practice of singing, “Shalom Aleichem, welcome to the angels” before we sit down for our Shabbat meal.

The piyyut known as Sholom Aleichem is nearly universally sung on Friday nights.  But its origins are mysterious. It first appears in the early 17th century and no one has been able to determine who wrote it.  The piyyut contains four stanzas:

1. First we greet the angels;

2. Then we invite the angels to come into our house;

3. Then we ask the angels to bless us;

4. Then we ask the angels to depart in peace (tzeitchem leshalom). 

A classic question when it comes to Sholom Aleichem is why do we kick the angels out of our house by saying to them, “tzeitchem leshalom.”

There are several answers to this question.

1. Some suggest that we should not include this stanza in Sholom Aleichem (see Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s criticism.  I wonder if he sees a Sabbatian element in this poem as it begins with a tzadi and the the piyyut could be read as an acrostic for Shabbtai Zvi.)

2. Others change the text to “be-tzeitchem leshalom, when you go.”  Meaning we are telling the angels, “when you go, go in peace.”

3. Another approach is that we are telling the angels to leave us so that we can have special alone time with Hashem.

4. The Frierderker Rebbe suggested that we are telling the angels to go because we do not want to take up anymore of their time.  The angels are busy and every second is precious, so we are excusing them to their other tasks.

The Frierderker Rebbe’s interpretation resonates with me.  I think his point is that we are acknowledging that there are many other people who are in need of the presence of the angels in their lives.  It is as though we are saying to the angels, “We got this. We are aware of the blessing of living in a home and having a shabbas meal. But we know that too many people out there do not have food for shabbas or even a home to lay their head at night.  We beg of you angels –now that you have blessed us --that you go and tend to others.”

On Shabbat evening we must be especially cognizant of those in need and every Friday night we should consciously raise awareness of our priorities and our value system.  

What is an angel?

There are some sources that suggest that an angel is a non-human physical entity placed on earth by Hashem for the purpose of carrying out a task.

But that’s not my preferred interpretation of an angel.  

Instead, I suggest we look for an explanation to Pirkei Avot 4:11.

The Mishnah teaches:

“Haoseh mitzvah achat, koneh lo prakit echad.  Vehaover aveirah achat, koneh lo kateigor echad.  One who does one good deed acquires a single defender.  One who does one sin acquires a single prosecutor” (Pirkei Avot 4:11).

The classis commentary on Mishna, Bartenura, simply states that a praklit means a, “malach melitz tov, a good interceding angel.”

When we do a good deed, the Mishnah teaches that we create a good interceding angel.

This is metaphorical.  It means that when we do good deeds we are creating good energy and aura in the world.  These good deeds serve as interceders on our behalf. When the totality of our life is looked at –when the time comes for us to answer question, “who are you,” (as Esav says to Yaakov, lemi atah in v. 32:18), it is our deeds that have served either as good angels or, chas veshalom, bad angels, that will speak up.  

Every time we do a good deed we are creating angels.  It is our job to create more angels in the world.

In the context of homelessness, we must challenge ourselves to create more angels and to work to alleviate what is an incredible blight on our society.

What can we do?

We can’t solve the problem by ourselves, but we can make a difference.  

Here are some suggestions:

1. We should talk about it more.  Just talking about it is an important step.  It creates an environment that demonstrates that this is something that bothers us and it is something that is a reflection of who we are and what we care about. We should mention that a core value of who we are as a community is that we want to find housing for all of our residents.

2. We should take our charitable gifts and donate a portion of it to those organizations that help those in need of a home.  But here we need to be very careful. We shouldn’t just look on line for two minutes and vote for the organization that we fits come across.  We should research the matter and try to find one that is doing the best job. On Tisha Be’av a man who lived without a home for many years spoke critically of a couple of these charitable organizations and said that they didn’t really provide him with serious help.  So I don’t encourage us to simply write a check and feel like we have done a sufficient job. We all need to do our homework.

3. If some of us in this room are fortunate enough to have money that we invest we should consider investing in non-government companies that prioritize building affordable housing units.   If we are able to invest our money in such companies and have a voice in those companies we can argue for the importance of doing something lofty with our money and our businesses. We can work with companies that prioritize helping the poor along as well as making a profit.  And it is possible to do both. The government offers many incentives to companies to invest in affordable housing. This week I will be meeting with leaders of the DC government that specialize in this area. My goal is to learn how my family and our community can be of more help in this area.

4. Support individual people.  Every few weeks I go to the bank and withdraw single dollar bills.  I then try to always walk around with singles in my pocket. If I see someone in need – and I don’t feel threatened - I try to always share something.  I know that some people feel that this is not actually helping but I respectfully disagree.  The person on the street needs recognition from us. They are out there in tough conditions. When our community was addressed by one of the vendors from Street Sense he said, “No one ever made a drug score from your dollar bill.”

But there are other ways of support other than giving a dollar bill.  We can individuals clothing and food. We can show love.

Every Sunday I usually find myself driving on Georgia Avenue.  At the intersection of Georgia Ave and 16th street, there are usually two men who stand there and ask for help.  Their names are Jeff and Dave.

Well, one Sunday I happened not to have anything on me.  I turned to Dave and said, “I am sorry. I have nothing on me.”  Dave said, “That’s alright. Just stopping and saying hello means so much to me.”  Since then I make it a point to try an greet every person who is asking for help—whether or not I can actually provide physical help.  I now always offer a blessing to Jeff and Dave. And in return Jeff and Dave always bless me. They ask me who my family is doing and always say a kind word.

My sabba, the holy Noam Elimelech, taught a deep lesson about malachim.  He said, vayishlach Yaakov malachim means:

Dibburim hayotzim mipi hatzaddik nivraim meihem malachim vehofech esav lehiyot achiv.  Angels are created from the words that come out of a righteous person’s mouth. And these words are so powerful they can affect the heart of Esav and turn him from being a wicked person into our brother.

This is why Yaakov sent malachim to Esav.  He wasn’t trying to bribe him. He was trying to transform him spiritually.  This is what we have the opportunity to do every day of our lives and especially every time we have a conversation.  We have the opportunity to create angels. We have the opportunity to transform and inspire our brothers.  

We all might not be able to solve the homeless crisis in our midst but we can all offer words that make a person’s day a little brighter and a little more tolerable.

Yaakov says to Esav, “im lavan garti,” and Rashi says that this means he reminds Esav he was a refugee.  But Rashi also says it means, “vetaryag mitzvoth shamarti, and I kept all 613 commandments.” Keli Yakar says that these two interpretations are really one.  Yaakov is saying because I once lived as a refugee I now know how to keep all 613 commandments. I must use my humbling experience of homelessness and incorporate it into my daily service of Hashem.

As a spiritual community we must wake up every day and say, “im lavan garti vetaryag mitzvoth shamarti, we once lived with Lavan and we will now take that experience and help others every day of our lives.” 

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783