This week's Torah portion is filled with interactions between angels and human beings. Three angels visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent where they sit wishing for a child, and two angels approach Lot in the depravity of Sodom. An angel calls out to Hagar as she despairs in the wilderness, and an angel stays Abraham's hand as he raises the knife to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah. Angels -- messengers of God sent from the heavens -- provide counsel and reassurance, healing and mercy, destruction and salvation, intervention and blessing to those dwelling on earth.
But why are so many angels sent when it seems that one would do? The medieval commentator Rashi asks this question about the three angels who visit Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of this week's reading. He answers that each of those angels has a different task.
One angel is sent to bring news to Sarah that she will give birth to a son; one is sent to destroy Sodom, the city of wickedness devoid of righteous people; and one is sent to bring healing to Abraham after his circumcision (at the end of last week's Torah reading). We learn from this, says Rashi, that one angel is never sent to perform two missions. Each mission requires a separate angel.
The ancient rabbis taught that angels are the ultimate in pure, single-minded creatures. They are only able to keep one thing in their minds at a time -- the mission given to them by God. After each mission, they return to God, who can grant them another, singular mission.
How different these angels are from the human beings we encounter in this week's reading! Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Hagar and Isaac all seem capable of holding many goals, purposes and missions in their minds at once -- even if these goals or purposes contradict each other. Indeed, humans as portrayed in the Torah are often inconsistent and contradictory in their intentions and in their actions, just as we see inconsistency and contradiction in ourselves and others in the world today.
There is an ancient story (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5) that the angels reacted to God's plan to create humanity. Some said, "Don't do it!," while others said, "Go ahead!" "The angel of Love said, 'Let humans be created, for they will do loving deeds,' but the angel of Truth said, 'Let them not be created, for they will be full of lies.'
"The angel of Righteousness said, 'Let them be created, for they will do righteous deeds,' but the angel of Peace said, 'Let them not be created, for they will be full of strife.'' While the angels were arguing, the Holy One went ahead and created humanity.
Each of the angels could only hold one thought at a time. From the standpoint of Love, humanity was worthwhile, but from the standpoint of Peace, human beings were a risky bet. Since each could only see its own point of view, the angels couldn't make a decision. Only God, who could see the truth of all of the angels' contradictory arguments, could decide that the contradictions that make up the human being are worthwhile.
We human beings, made in God's image, hold these contradictory purposes, intentions and actions within ourselves. We are inconsistent and paradoxical, irrational and unpredictable; we are certainly no angels. But God knows that our very inconsistency holds the potential for creating holiness in the world, holiness that even the angels can't reproach.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .