Our Better Angels – Shabbat Vayera, Friday, November 6, 2020

I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning. Days are a blur, nights are long. Time zones are out of sync. I can’t keep track of what day it is. My brain has been bouncing around on those blue and red maps in a way that makes me think CNN and NBC are trying to hypnotize me.

And then there’s the emotional strain it’s taking on us all. Especially here in Pennsylvania where, like it our not, “History has its eyes on you.” And we wonder, in the end, who tells our story.

In the middle of all this turmoil, in the middle of this week of tumult, I was stopped short by one line in one editorial column by Tom Friedman in the New York Times. He wrote about how difficult it is speaking to his daughters about all that is happening – and how he wishes he could tell them that we will all be okay, and that people will realize, in his words, “that we simply cannot go on tearing one another apart.”[1]

He closed with his hope that “the better angels of our nature” are still out there in our world.

That’s the phrase that made me stop and take notice. Because I immediately connected it to what happens in this week’s Torah portion.

Last week, we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah, who were commanded by God to go forth to the land of Canaan, where they would have land, offspring, and the blessings of all the other families of the world.

The land came. The blessings, the wealth. But not the children. Sarah was barren, much to their anguish, and Abraham’s only child – a son named Ishmael, was by the handmaiden Hagar.

Now 99 years old, Abraham is once again visited by God, who offers further promises of offspring – which to Abraham is becoming less and less likely. And God commands Abraham to circumsize the foreskin of every male in his household, including himself, as a physical sign of an eternal divine covenant.

This is where we find Abraham and Sarah, three days after circumcision, as Abraham is healing in his tent.

In the heat of the day, he looks up and, startled, sees three men standing near him. The Torah introduces this by saying “And Adonai appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre” so that we all know that these three men are messengers of God – but Abraham does not know that.

Yet he immediately leaps up, bows low to them, and invites these passers-by in for a morsel of bread, a little water, and a rest under a tree. Promising little but delivering much, he flies to Sarah with orders to whip up a feast: cakes and curds, and a fatted calf that he somehow is able to roast in a jiffy. He serves them efficiently and respectfully.

After they’ve eaten, the men ask after Sarah, who is listening behind the tent flap as one of the men tells her husband, “I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah finds the prospect laughable, as old as they both are. But we know that, in nine months’ time, she will bear her son Isaac.

And Abraham and Sarah will fully understand that these were not men of flesh and blood – but angels, messengers sent by God to deliver that promise.

Angels – which in the Torah are known as m’lachim, or messengers of God – are, as Gunther Plaut described them in our Reform Torah commentary, “a category of superior beings with special powers . . . a kind of nobility at God’s court . . . [and] the go-betweens [who] . . . transmit revelation to prophets [and] announce the coming of events” like the birth of Isaac or, in the next chapter, the destruction of the evil city of Sodom.[2]

But angels are ephemeral beings. They do not belong here. They are not responsible for what happens here. They come and they go, with messages from on high. It is we humans who are left here to carry out God’s plans for this world.

So I have a proposition. It is actually Abraham and Sarah who are the angels.

After all:

It is Abraham and Sarah who go on faith, packing up their household and heading to Canaan to spread worship of Adonai.

It is Abraham and Sarah who go on faith that, one day, they will be delivered of a son.

It is Abraham and Sarah who open their tent, and their hearts, to mere strangers.

So it is Abraham and Sarah who are the true messengers of God, who are doing God’s work in this world.

Think of it. In the very next scene, when the malachim head off to Sodom and Gomorrah to proclaim the destruction of these evil cities, it is Abraham who tries to protect human life. It is Abraham who argues with God for the lives of the sinners, if he can find even a handful of good people. It is Abraham who rescues his nephew Lot from destruction, whether he deserves it or not.

That’s the kind of behavior – that determined kindness, that belief in humanity’s basic goodness – that so often leads us to call someone our “angel” when they come to our rescue.

I think Thomas Friedman is looking for angels in the wrong place. The angels are not out there somewhere. The angels are – the angels have to be – right here, among us. The angels have to be beings who understand our anguish and forgive our frailties, sometimes saving us from circumstances beyond our control and sometimes saving us from ourselves. And, the truth is, that only fellow human beings can do that.

Right now, among us, the “angels of our better nature” are performing divine service. They are the calm voices in the whirwind of a ferocious storm. They are the vote counters spending long days and nights to uphold each of our constitutional rights, and the groups (like the Pittsburgh Steelers) who send in catered dinners in appreciation.

The “angels” are ones who set this politically charged time aside to go to work, to make sure their children are being educated, to find secure and safe ways to vote in the midst of a horrific and deadly pandemic that is only getting worse, day by day. The “angels” are the ones putting their own lives on the line in hospital wards all over this country, in forced separation from the ones they love.

What we call “angels” really are best described as malachim – as divine messengers. They may be divinely inspired from the heavens above, but they live on the earth below.

And I believe that’s exactly what the author of that phrase “the angels of our better nature” had in mind.

The phrase comes from the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address of March 4, 1861. Here is the complete quote:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

President Lincoln believed in the inherent goodness of humanity. He believed that, even on the verge of a massive upheaval that would threaten to tear our country in half, our true nature would eventually prevail. It would not be pretty. It would not be easy. It would not be quick. But, in the end, the m’lachim among us would see to our ultimate redemption.

I believe this to be true. And I believe God counts on it, as do we all.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.

####

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/opinion/trump-biden-election-2020.html

[2] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), page 4.

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