Parashat VaYeira begins with the visit of angels to Avraham (though that is not actually explicit in the text). Subsequently, angels take Lot out of Sedom (though, there as well, they are sometimes identified as "men"). There are many other appearances of angels in Sefer Bereishit, but some of the most interesting midrashim concerning their role in these stories appear in Parashat VaYeira, and we shall concentrate on them, though not exclusively.
A. Who is an angel
"The two angels came to Sedom at evening."
"But he is one, and who can turn him, and that which his soul desires is done" (Iyov 23).
We were taught: One angel does not fulfill two assignments, nor two angels one assignment. Yet here we have two (angels)?
(The answer is) that Michael gave the good news (to Avraham) and departed;
Gavriel was sent to overturn Sedom;
And Refael was sent to save Lot. (50,2)
Since there were three angels who appeared to Avraham, and two who came to Sedom, the midrash divides the different tasks among them, one to Avraham and two in Sedom, thereby fulfilling the rule that each angel has one and only one distinct task.
What is the meaning of the principle that "one angel does not fulfill two assignments, nor two angels one assignment"? Clearly, the Sages are indicating that angels are not to be seen as independent personalities, but merely as created agents of God's will. The angel is totally identified with the task, is no more and no less than the assignment. In fact, the root meaning of the word "malakh" means "messenger." There would be no problem for a human to perform two tasks successively, but an angel is "exhausted" by the fulfillment of one task. This is because his existence is nothing else but the fulfillment of that task, so that his metaphysical basis of existence is, in fact, exhausted when the task has been fulfilled.
The total identification of an angel with his appointed task, to the extent that he is literally exhausted by its fulfillment, is expressed in an even more extreme - and dramatic - manner in a midrash found later in parashat Vayishlach.
R. Chelbo said in the name of R. Shemuel b. Nachman: A heavenly group never sings and repeats; rather each day God creates a group of new angels and they sing a new song before Him and they depart….
Andrianus, may his bones be ground to dust, asked R. Yehoshua b. Chanania. He said to him: You say that a heavenly group does not sing and repeat, but rather each day God creates a group of new angels and they sing a new song before Him and they depart?
He replied: Yes.
He said: And to where do they go?
He replied: To the place from where they are created.
He asked: From where are they created?
He replied: From the river "Dinur" (river of fire). (78,1)
Monotelosity, in fact, is one of the significant differences between angels and humans, especially those who have entered the covenant of Avraham. Avraham's tasks are called trials, "nisyonot," as in the midrash that "Avraham was tried with ten trials" (Shemot Rabba 15). A human is not just a messenger and he is not created to fulfill a specific task, but to fulfill his potential as the image of God - which is, by definition, an infinite, multifaceted telos, where one step necessarily leads to the next in an unfolding pattern of development.
Naturally, you will immediately ask a question on this interpretation of the first midrash. [The instructor waits patiently for the students to suggest the question on their own.]
All right, here is the question. Our midrash specifically gives names to the angels who visited Avraham and Lot; Michael, Gavriel, and Refael. The first two names are found in the book of Daniel as names of angels. The question is not merely that this implies that these angels existed at the time of Daniel and other times. Names imply personality. By giving names to each angel, the midrash lifts the anonymity that would be appropriate to a faceless messenger, who is no more than his appointed task. So these angels, who only carry out one task, nevertheless appear to have distinct personalities.
In fact, the midrash in Vayishlach, which states that angels do not survive the completion of their single task, asks this very question.
R. Brechya said: I refuted R. Chelbo. Is it not written, "Release me, for the dawn has risen," and it is my time to sing (before God)?
He said to me: "Stifler"! You think you can stifle me?
I said to him: So what is the explanation of "Release me, for the dawn has risen?"
He said: This is Michael and Gavriel, who are princes of heaven - all the others pass away but they do not pass away.
So it appears that there are angels who have sustained existence, and they are defined as the "princes." These very angels, Gavriel and Michael, are two of the angels noted by the midrash in Vayeira as well.
While admittedly this weakens my point, I still believe it is valid. The basic point of the midrashim is that all angels, in other words, the concept of angels, are messengers whose only raison d'etre is to fulfill their mission. Hence, at any given moment they are totally defined by that mission, which is why they cannot be given more than one mission at a time. Anonymous angels are simply that - a mission. God seems to also have a small cadre of permanent angels (in the classic midrashim, only three), who are available for one mission at a time. Even these angels, though, it should be noted have names that explicitly define their roles, as the midrash stated: Gavriel ("Power of God") to overturn Sedom, and Refael ("Healing of God") to save Lot. Michael ("Who is like God") is a bit subtler in meaning - this angel is presented in many midrashim as the patron savior of Israel, and hence he is the one to give the message of Yitzchak's birth to Avraham, since the birth of Yitzchak is the future of Israel. While the "princes" of heaven persist, they are nonetheless rigidly defined in terms of their missions - though these missions have a permanent rather than an ad hoc nature.
B. What is an angel
"The two angels came to Sedom."
Here they are called "angels"; but above (when they appeared to Avraham) they are called "men."
(The answer is that) above, when the Divine Presence was over them, they are called men, but when the Divine Presence departs from them, they clothed themselves in angelity ("malakhut").
R. Tanchuma said in the name of R. Levi: To Avraham, who possessed power, they appeared as men, but to Lot, whose power was weak, they appeared as angels.
R. Chanina said: Before they fulfilled their mission, they are called men, but when they fulfill their mission, they are called angels.
R. Tanchuma said: (This is like) one who was appointed to a principality by the king. Until he arrived in his palace, he appeared like a commoner (literally, pagan); once he arrived at his palace, he appeared as a noble. So too, before they fulfilled their mission, they are called men, but when they fulfill their mission, they are called angels. (50,2)
[Note: I know there is no such word as "angelity." But I thought it would be worthwhile to translate the Hebrew literally. In Hebrew, there is no problem to create a generic noun from the word angel - malakh becomes malakhut, as "melekh" (king) becomes "malkhut (majesty).]
The "men" who appeared to Avraham become angels when they arrive in Sedom at the house of Lot. The midrash questions the switch, and gives three answers.
1. The appearance of the angels at Avraham's tent was preceded by the revelation of God to Avraham. Avraham specifically requests that God not depart while he tends to the visitors, so we may conclude that God Himself is present during the angels' visit. Hence, concludes the midrash, they are called "men" during that time. The point here is not that they are called men by comparison, but that they did not, in reality, "clothe" themselves in angelity while in the presence of God. I think this comes to stress that angels are not great spiritual beings whom one might imagine should or could be worshipped. In other words, they are not gods, or demigods, or in any way to be worshipped. This is not only a cautionary note against ancient paganism. We know that modern religions as well tend to ascribe to angels or other spiritual beings great power and a high degree of reverence, and this attitude has sometimes crept into Judaism, despite rabbinic opposition (especially the Rambam). The midrash is saying that before men, angels appear as - well, as angels, but in the presence of God they are no more than men, that is, they are created beings; created, as we saw above, for a particular purpose.
2. To Avraham, they were men; but in Lot's eyes, they were angels. This makes the same point, but even stronger. To a man whose spiritual powers are developed, angels are equals. Only in the eyes of a spiritual weakling like Lot do angels appear as awesome or powerful.
3. When they are going to fulfill their tasks, they are called men, but when they have reached the final goal, they are called angels. In this answer, "angel" is indeed a term of grandeur. However, unlike humans, angels only achieve their full stature when they have completed their mission. The reason is inherent in our opening remarks. Angels are equivalent to their mission. An angel who has not fulfilled his task is not really an angel at all, since other than the fulfillment of his task, he has no metaphysical reality. So, in the meantime, we may as well call them "men."
The midrash compares the assumption of angelic appearance to the aristocratic clothes worn by a newly appointed imperial officer. There is an expected outer appearance that accompanies an appointment and an official role. Although the appointment has been conferred at court, the official does not adopt the aristocratic attire until he comes to the seat of his power, for only then is he fully the holder of the aristocratic title. So too, an angel does not clothe himself in "angelity" until he has reached the actual state by virtue of which he is called "angel," - which is when he has fulfilled the assignment given him.
C. Men and angels
An angel is only really an angel when he has actualized and fulfilled his mission. Man is the opposite; he is called Man from creation.
This is the book of the generations of Man, on the day that God created man, in the image of God He made him.
Male and female He created them; and He blessed them and called them Man, on the day they were created. (Bereishit 5,1-2)
Man is defined by his potential, for he was created in the image of God. Even a little infant is in the image of God, because before him stretches the potential to grow and become like God. There is no limit to human potential, for the defining plan, the design of man, is the image of God. An angel, on the other hand, so much greater in his actuality than a man, has no potential at all. He is the equal to his actuality, created only for that one purpose.
Does this mean that men are greater than angels? Not in their respective actuality, but in the sense of growth and potential, well then, the answer is yes. This is how the midrash, in the continuation of the one quoted above from Vayishlach, puts it.
R. Meir, R. Yehuda, and R. Shimon.
R. Meir said: Who is greater, the guard or he whom he guards? From that which is written, "For He shall appoint his angels to guard you" (Psalms 91), we see that he who is guarded is greater than the guard.
R. Yehuda said: Who is greater, the carrier or he whom he carries? From that which is written, "They shall carry you on hands" (ibid.), we see that he who is carried is greater than the carrier.
R. Shimon said: From what is written, "He said: Release me," we see that the one who releases is greater than he who is released. (78,1).
Man needs to be carried and guarded, for he is weak and undeveloped, in need of support and protection, like a child carried on the arms of his nurse. The angels, charged with man's protection, are powerful and strong. But clearly they are serving man. In the end, Yaacov gives the word that releases the angel, even though he did not overcome the angel in combat. The angel, even the one who fought Yaacov, is in service of Man. The reason is that the aim of God's creation is the infinite development of the image of God in Man, and the angels are merely means to further God's aim.
For further thought:
I quoted above the midrash in Vayishlach that recounts the conversation of the Roman Andrianus ("may his bones be ground to dust ") and R. Yehoshua about the river Dinur, the river of fire. That midrash continues with the following enigmatic exchange.
He said to him: What is the nature of the river Dinur?
He said to him: It is like the Jordan, which never ceases either by day or by night.
He said to him: And from where does it come?
He said to him: From the sweat of the beasts who sweat from carrying the throne of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
His counselor said to him: But the Jordan flows by day and does not flow by night!
He said: I watched by its source (the Banias), and the amount of flow by day was the amount of flow by night.
What is this conversation about, and what does it mean? I am sure that I will be hearing multiple suggestions - this text practically begs for multiple explanations - and with such an enigmatic formulation, your imagination is needed.
As usual, I shall discuss whatever answers you send in next week.
The next shiur (in two weeks) will analyze the rest of the references I did not reach in today's shiur. The topic is the comparison between Avraham and Lot. I repeat the references.
50,11; 52,1-3; 41,6