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Torah Sparks

November 3, 2001/5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Hertz, p. 63; Etz Hayim, p. 99)
Triennial- Year I: Genesis 18:1 - 18:33 (Hertz, p. 63; Etz Hayim, p. 99)
Haftarah - II Kings 4:1-37 (Hertz, p. 76; Etz Hayim, p. 123)

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(18:1-15) Abraham welcomes three wayfarers with full hospitality, not realizing that they are angels. They tell Abraham that Sarah will have a son. Sarah, overhearing, laughs in disbelief. (18:16-33) God tells Abraham of his decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham tries to dissuade God, with the famous words," Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" Abraham bargains with God, who promises not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous men can be found there.

(19:1-19) The angels warn Lot to flee Sodom with his family. His wife disobeys the order not to look back, and is turned into a pillar of salt.

(19:30-38) After the destruction, Lot's daughters, believing there is no one else left on earth, trick him into an incestuous union. They each bear sons, the founders of the nations of Ammon and Moab.

(20:1-18) Abraham and Sarah are in Gerar. Abraham says that Sarah is his sister, so Abimelekh king of Gerar has Sarah brought to him. In a dream, God appears to him and frightens him away from Sarah. Abimelekh rebukes Abraham, but then compensates him for his trouble.

(21:1-8) God keeps His promise; Isaac is born. Isaac is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, and there is a banquet on the day of his weaning.

(21:9-21) Due to conflict between Sarah and Hagar and Sarah's fears of the negative influence Ishmael may have over Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. God promises Hagar, "I will make a great nation" of Ishmael.

(21:22-34) Abraham and Abimelekh make a covenant of peace at Be'er-sheva.

(22:1-19) The Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac

(22:20-24) Genealogy which includes Rebekah, future wife of Isaac.

This Shabbat's Theme: Angels

The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance to his tent as the day grew hot. Looking up he saw three men standing near him... (Gen. 18:1-2)

Traditional View of Angels

  1. Three men... As is apparent from the rest of the narrative, they were actually angels in the "guise" of men. God sent three different angels because, by definition, an angel is a function that God wishes to have performed. Thus, each function is a new angel, and since there were three missions to be accomplished in connection with Abraham and Sarah at this time, there were three angels to carry them out. In the words of the Midrash, "one angel does not perform two missions." (Genesis Rabbah 50:2) In this case, the three angels were Michael, who informed Abraham that Sarah would have a son; Gabriel, who overturned Sodom and Raphael who healed Abraham and saved Lot (it being one mission involving rescue). (The Chumash, ArtScroll, p.79, n.2)
  2. Angels... The three "men" of whom the story speaks belong, according to the biblical setting, to a category of superior beings with special powers. They appear in a variety of forms, sometimes as men and sometimes in other shapes (cherubim, etc.)... Their function may be to worship God, to do His bidding or most frequently, to carry a divine message. Because of this latter function the name malach* (messenger) is often given to these beings. The Greek translation of malach (messenger) is angelos, hence our English "angel." *(Also, in Ugaritic, lak means "to send" - Author.) As a group, angels were considered by tradition as a kind of nobility at God's court, singing His praises and acting as His counsel... Angels were believed to have existed before the creation of the world and to be generally benevolent to men. Belief in angels was widespread in the ancient Near East. Mesapotamian and Hittite deities had their subordinate ministers, and Egyptian sources tell how the gods communicate with each other through couriers. (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut, p. 124)
  3. Rabbi Jose the son of Judah said: The angels of the service accompany a man on Friday evening from the synagogue to his house, one good and one bad angel; and if, when he comes to his house, the lamp is lit and the table spread, and the couch arranged, the good angel says, "May it be God's will that the next Sabbath be as this one," to which the bad angel even against his will, says "Amen." But if it is not so, then the bad angel says, "May it be God's will that thus it may be on the next Sabbath also," and the good angel, against his will, says "Amen." (Talm. Shabbat 119b)

Angels in the Abstract

  1. The modern Jewish attitude to angels tend to regard the traditional references and descriptions as symbolic, poetic, or representing an earlier world concept. (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. II, p. 975)
  2. The concept of angels, whenever used by the Rabbis, is used exclusively in the concretization of value-concepts. (Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind, p. 186 ff)
  3. Everyone entrusted with a mission is an angel... all forces that reside in the body are angels. (M. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 1190, 2.6)
  4. The more materialistic science becomes the more angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the souls. (E.C. Burne-Jones to Oscar Wilde)
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch associates the word ltkn (angel or messenger) with the word u,ftkn ("His work" or "His message") in the Creation story. In a way then, we humans (and even Nature) are messengers (or "angels", if you will) who are emissaries of God's "work" - melachah - or His "message". (See S.P. Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, pp. 10 - 11)
  6. In these days you must go to Heaven to find an angel. (Polish Proverb)

“Sparks” for Discussion:

Angels are very much a part of our tradition appearing in the Bible, rabbinic literature, medieval angelology, Jewish mysticism and in Jewish folklore. On Friday evening, we welcome them into our homes as we sing Shalom Aleichem Malachei Hasharet (Hashalom). Yes, Shalom Aleichem is a marvelous way to greet the Sabbath, yet, what real meaning does the song have for us when we sing it?

Also, what do we intend to mean when we say "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh" in our prayers and lift our heels off the ground (in imitation of the celestial angels who are not earthbound)?

Do we truthfully believe in angels? If so, in what way? And if not, is there a more modern interpretation of this concept, which was so much a part of our belief system in the past, that can be given today? How can we preserve the customs (such as the ones mentioned above) that we so much enjoy and yet maintain our intellectual integrity?

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