Angels in Judaism – a post by Rabbi Melinda M. Mersack

This post is excerpted from teachings shared by Rabbi Melinda M. Mersack, our auxiliary rabbi during Rabbi Caruso’s sabbatical, who shared this d’var Torah on Parshat Terumah at Shabbat services on Friday, February 15, 2013. Rabbi Mersack will speak again at Kabbalat Shabbat Worship this Friday, March 8, 2013, and teaches on a regular basis on our adult education faculty, as a Torah study teacher on Shabbat mornings at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to respond below with comments or share

Angels.  It’s something we don’t often talk about in Judaism.  In fact, we tend to think of angels as not really a Jewish concept.  But, in actuality, there is a rich tradition regarding angels in Judaism- beginning with the torah.

In this week’s torah portion, terumah, we read about the construction of the mishkan, the sanctuary complete with an ark that the Israelites are to build to accompany them on their journey through the wilderness to the Land of Israel.  We read many details about this ark:  the materials needed for its construction, its precise measurements, and how it is to be adorned.  What is to adorn the ark?  Angels!

“You shall make two Cherubim of gold…. The Cherubim shall be with wings spread upward…their faces toward one another (Ex. 25:18-20).”  But, this week’s parasha is not the first time we encounter the cherubim.  In the beginning of Genesis, after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, we read that God placed two cherubim at its gate, with a flaming sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.

This gives us insight into the role of these angels, the cherubim.  They are guardians.  Just as they guarded Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden and eating from the Tree of Life, here in this week’s torah portion, they guard the ark and the tablets contained inside.  But, perhaps more importantly, between the cherubim sits God’s throne.  The rabbis explain (B’midbar Rabba 4:13) that the two cherubim symbolize heaven and earth.  God’s throne sits between them to show that God’s divine love extends from the heavens and reaches out to us on earth.

So, while the cherubim on the ark are created out of gold by man, we understand that they are real beings.  God placed the cherubim outside the Garden of Eden.  And the depiction of the cherubim upon the ark, is representative of God’s throne in heaven with the cherubim stationed at each side.

In Ezekiel, the Cherubim are described in greater detail as having four wings:  two outstretched to the heavens, and two pointed down covering themselves.  And, under the wings, were human arms.  The cherubim have two straight legs with calf’s feet at the bottom.  Each cherub has four faces:  one of an ox, one was human, one of a lion, and one of an eagle.  And, eyes covered this creature so they appeared “like burning coals of fire.”  Imagine seeing such a creature!  What feelings would that inspire?  Awe?  Fear?

Yet, elsewhere, the rabbis describe the cherubim as having the face of a child, and the image of the eyes like burning coals is absent.  Perhaps, then, the cherubim had multiple roles as guardians.  They could be fear-provoking when intended to scare people away such as at the Garden of Eden.  Or, they could appear welcoming, innocent, like that of a child when intending to bring comfort and protection to someone.

So, in which form do they appear on the ark of the mishkan?  The torah doesn’t tell us.  But, some of our sages believe they had the appearance of children to teach us that our approach in studying torah must be like children in two respects:  we must accept the authority of the law like an obedient child, and we should strive to be innocent and of pure intent when adhering to these laws.  Others elaborate claiming that the presence of these “child-like cherubim” is symbolic, reinforcing that we are to teach our children torah, and they are the ones who will be the guardians of Jewish life.

This latter understanding often speaks to us.  As Jews, we are taught to accept responsibility.  We no longer wait for the messiah to come or God to intervene in our world, but we make things happen.  We’ve embraced the concept that we are partners with God and God has empowered us to act, for us to create the messianic age by performing mitzvot and tzedek, acts of justice, every time we are able.  Who needs angels?

And though we are modern, rational Jews who may dismiss such a supernatural discussion and believe that angels are only imagined, I am suggesting that even today there is relevance for these heavenly creatures.

I do believe that it is up to us, with our hearts and our hands, to do God’s work and create a more perfect world.  But, how beautiful is it to think that we are not alone?  That God gave us partners in the angels.

The Cherubim are identified as only one of ten classes of angels in Judaism.  The more general word for angel in Hebrew is malakh, messenger.  Each class of angels, including the cherubim, had a specific God-given task.  And there is a wealth of Jewish literature about the different roles of the angels.  Many are sent to protect us, to guide us, to teach us, and even to be our advocate in the heavenly court of justice.  I find this comforting.  The idea that God cares about us so much, that God created a special class of beings, the angels, for us.

Where are these angels, today?  I don’t know.  Do they still exist?  I don’t know.  But there is so much in life that we can’t see or touch- yet that guides us in our beliefs and our actions.  So, whether these angels are real or imagined, they are a symbol. Whether you believe in God, or angels, or simply humankind- we know we are not alone.  There is a constant network  to bolster us and nourish us.  This is what Judaism provides us in a form that can speak to everyone:  in text, philosophy, theology, ritual practice, culture, music, food, ethics, and prayer.  Experienced as a community- through which we are enriched and sustained.

May this awareness give us strength.  May we feel the presence of our partners- be they with wings or loving arms.  May we feel their support- in our hearts and in their touch.  And, may we be empowered by the knowledge that we do not walk this earth alone.

Ken y’hi ratson.  May this be God’s will.