Be The Angel You Wish To See In The World

This sermon was delivered on Erev Rosh Hashanah, October 2, 2016, at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. To get the full effect, including music and visuals during the sermon, please check out the video.

Shanah tovah.

You know those moments when someone comes into your life and gives you a message, right at the moment you needed it? I had one of those moments at a concert.

The opening act was this group, “Switchfoot.” And during one of the songs, the lead singer jumped down off the stage, and started singing the refrain of the song while he high-fived everyone in the crowd. I was so mesmerized, so caught up by the showmanship, all I heard in the moment was the melody, almost like a niggun:

Lai lai lai lai…

When I went home, I found the song online. This time, without the distractions of the concert venue, I really listened to the lyrics.

Yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
Yesterday is a promise that you’ve broken
Don’t close your eyes, don’t close your eyes
This is your life and today is all you’ve got now
Yeah, and today is all you’ll ever have
Don’t close your eyes
Don’t close your eyes

This is your life, are you who you want to be?
This is your life, are you who you want to be?
This is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be?
When the world was younger and you had everything to lose

What a powerful message. I kept thinking about that question: This is my life – am I who I want to be? Then I realized the date. The concert had been on S’lichot, the service held on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah which marks the beginning of the period of reflection leading into the High Holidays. I felt like our ancestor Jacob, waking from his sleep and stating aloud God was in this place, and I did not know it. At any other time of year, this would have been a nice reminder to myself to reflect. But something pulled me to really hear this message, a message which would prepare me for the High Holidays.

If Rosh Hashanah has one theme, it is that we reflect — on our lives, on our actions, on our relationships — and we begin to engage in teshuvah: acts of repentance, atonement, and healing. Whether we are reading a prayer, singing together, or hearing the voice of the shofar, we are asked this question: This is your life — are you who you want to be?

This band intervened in my life at a moment that made me discover a new and deeper connection to my soul. I realized that the members of Switchfoot were angels to me. As we begin these High Holidays, I encourage you to reflect on the angels in your life, those who have made a substantial impact on who you are, even if they were only in your life a short time. And as we enter the year 5777, I ask you: be the angel you wish to see in the world.

We do not really talk about angels much in Judaism. My guess is that when I say the word, “angel” you think of white-skinned, blonde, white-robbed people with a little halo above their head, who sit on fluffy white clouds while they spread whipped cream cheese on their bagels. Or perhaps in this City of Angels you have seen the sculptures from the Community of Angels Sculpture project. Or perhaps, you think of Tony Kushner’s, Angels in America.

In Judaism, an angel is a type of being that is somewhere between human and divine. Angels are messengers of God who intervene in human activities, guiding them towards the best course of action. The word most commonly used to refer to angels in Biblical and rabbinic texts is “Mal’ach,” which means “messenger.” (EJ, 150) But angels are not just superhuman agents. Sometimes they are human agents called “b’nei Elohim, divine beings.” or “kedoshim, holy beings;” or “often the angel is called simply, ‘a person.’” (EJ, 150) Angels are not specific to gender. Some angels are male, as in the three men who came to Abraham to announce he and Sarah would have a child, and some are female, as in the book of Zechariah when the prophet looks up and sees two women “soaring with the wind in their wings.” (Gen. 18:2; Zech. 5:9)

While the Reform and Conservative Movements have taken out most references to angels in our liturgy, we still acknowledge them when we bow slightly to the left and right during the Kedushah and when we welcome the ministering angels of Shabbat with Shalom Aleichem.

Angels also play a substantial role in our High Holiday rituals. Our Torahs and our spiritual leaders are clad in white like the angels described in the Book of Daniel (12:7), “Then I heard the man, the angel, dressed in linen.” We act like angels, most notably when we say the second line of the Sh’ma — “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed – Blessed is God’s glorious majesty forever and ever” — three times in a full voice at the end of Yom Kippur. On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, Cantor Nancy Cohen will chant the Akedah, and we will hear an angel intervene as Abraham is about to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And on the High Holidays, we reflect on our humanity and ask ourselves: “What angels have I brought into the world?” (inspired by Rabbi Richard Levy)

In Judaism, Angels are an expression of God’s presence in the world. And if we, as humans, are created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim, than surely we, too, are expressions of God’s presence in the world. And surely we, too, as a community, are embodying the image in Psalms, standing together as an “assembly of holy beings,” and dwelling in “the company of the divine beings.” (Ps. 29:7) And, surely, each one of us has the capability of becoming equal to angels, resembling them, doing holy work, and being the angels we wish to see in the world.

The angels in our lives may not have been immediately recognized at the time. At that concert, Switchfoot delivered a message to me, but I was not yet able to recognize them as angels. When you consider the angels in your life, did you know they were an angel at the time? Maybe your angel was someone encouraging you to reach your full potential. Maybe your angel was someone who did an unexpectedly kind thing. Maybe your angel was someone who reached out a comforting hand at a time when you weren’t ready to admit you needed some help.

Of course, sometimes we do not act so angelically. We gossip, we act cynically, we hold grudges — because, in short, we are human. Indeed, what makes us human is the recognition that we sometimes miss the mark. While we strive to be the best version of ourselves, to act with kindness and compassion, when we fail ourselves and our friends and family, we can acknowledge our humanity, reflect, and bring about new, better action.

Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season encourage us to consider angelic values, to reflect on the year that was, and imagine what the next year could be. On Rosh Hashanah, we have the chance to reevaluate ourselves and our relationships. From whom do I need to ask forgiveness? Have I been who I want to be? Have I been the angel I wish to see in the world? This is your life. This is your year. Maybe this year you will be an angel of compassion. Maybe this year you will be an angel of forgiveness. Maybe this year you will be an angel of peace.

In the four years I have had the honor of being a part of this Kol Ami community, I have come to know the many angels in this sacred space. All of us here, as individuals, come together to make a community of angels. I have heard your voice of strength. I have noticed so many of you rally to each other’s sides. I have seen each of you embody the values of angels, bringing goodness into the world through SOVA and trips to Guatamala, showing up for each other’s performances and showcases, making house calls when members are sick, dancing and laughing at our Purim shpiels and Chanukkah festivals, and celebrating when marriage equality became a reality.

And I have seen the angels of compassion in this community, the angels who recognize that we all have moments of hurt, of struggle, of grief. In those moments of grief, we often feel resigned, withdrawn, helpless, in unimaginable pain. Each of us has moments, even in the last year, where the last thing we want to do is to be an angel. Instead, we just wish an angel would come and take away the pain — whether it was Orlando, a paralyzing diagnosis, or just trying to find our way in a constantly changing world.

Rather than waiting for an angel to come take care of us, we can be the angels we wish to see in the world. You can be an angel of compassion. You can support your loved ones by being a healing presence, really hearing them, helping them navigate their journey. The relationships of this community enable each of you to be an angel of compassion. While it is also true that the world has changed for the better because of the efforts of this community, I am guessing that each one of you has also changed for the better because of the angels of compassion who sit around you.

Think of all of the angels of this engaged community, interwoven with each other. We are transforming the world using Jewish values. We have created and are creating Jews for life. These are the pillars of our congregation.

As we enter the year 5777, I encourage you to reflect on the angel you wish to see in the world. Do you wish to see an angel of compassion in the world? Do you wish to see an angel of community? Do you wish to see an angel of social justice? Or how might you be an angel of compassion, community, social justice? What teshuvah does each of us need to do to turn ourselves around?

Each of us has the ability to make the world a little better. Maybe a lot better. And this is a community of angels that does not wait for someone else to make it better for us. And we will continue to build community one step, one moment, at a time, by being the angels we wish to see in the world.

This year, when you hear the words of Shalom Aleichem, our song about the ministering angels of Shabbat, I encourage you to hear those words and know that they apply to you, because when we sing them, we are not just addressing our spiritual angels, we are singing to each other: “Peace be to you, O ministering angels, messengers of the Most High; Enter in peace; Bless me with peace; Depart in peace.” (Mishkan T’filah translation) Enter the year in peace and gladness. Bless each other with kindness. And go forth, creating a more just world. May you have a year of peace, may you enter this year in peace, may you be blessed and bless others with peace. And in this year, and always, depart this holy space in peace, to be a force of goodness, an angel of compassion, an angel of community, an angel of peace, a messenger on high.

Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal’chei ham’lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.

There must have been a moment
When you met somebody new
And you’ve never been the same since you met
And in the shadow of that meeting
A new awareness grew
That you’ve been given something holy
That you never thought you’d get
Our parents, our teachers, our lovers and our kids
The friends upon whose shoulders we cry
Every soul we chance upon
And every floor we dance upon
All can be a messenger on high. (lyrics by Rabbi Joe Black)

Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal’chei ham’lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.
Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal’chei ham’lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.

Shanah tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA. He produced the film, "Hatikvah: A Documentary About One Aspect of Israel," and has released 3 albums of original Jewish music.
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