Calling All Angels: Parashat Beshalach 5777

Am Yisrael exit Egypt and they do it in style [Shemot 13:21-22]: “Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way and at night in a pillar of fire to give them light, [thus they could] travel day and night. He did not move away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire at night [from] before the people”. The pillars of cloud and fire were the physical manifestation of Hashem’s Divine Presence on earth. Every time a person looked at one of the pillars he could see the Divine. And even better, the pillars served another, more prosaic, purpose: Am Yisrael didn’t need GPS to navigate the desert. They knew exactly where to go: Just follow the pillars. There was never a moment when Am Yisrael would be “pillar-less”, as one pillar would rise before the other set.

Having the pillars was a good thing because it took the Egyptians only a couple of days to recover from the shock of the tenth plague and to realize that they had just waved good-bye to their slave economy. It takes them a short while to catch up with Am Yisrael who are camped on the shore of the Red Sea. Of course Hashem is ready for this contingency and the sea is waiting to be split. In order to create a buffer between Egypt and Am Yisrael, a little bit of manoeuvring is required [Shemot 14:19-20]: “The angel of Hashem, who had been going in front of the Israelite camp, moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved away from in front of them and stood behind them. It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and there were the cloud and the darkness and it illuminated the night, and one did not draw near the other all night long.”

Something strange here. We were told about the “pillar of cloud” and the “pillar of fire”, but where did that “angel of Hashem” come from? Most of the medieval commentators explain that this “angel of Hashem” is really a “Heavenly Court”. Call me a fool but I have no idea what this means, either. The clearest answer I came across is that of the Ralbag[1], who suggests that the “angel” was really Moshe. His source is the verse in Bemidbar [20:16] “[Hashem] sent an angel and took us out of Egypt”. In other words, an “angel” does not have to be a supernatural being with wings and a halo. An “angel” is just another word for a Divine emissary. The Ralbag gives a few reasons why Moshe would have placed himself between Am Yisrael and the Egyptians. For instance, it gives a strong message against generals who fight the war behind the lines. They must remain visibly in the thick of the fight in order to rally their troops.

While the explanation of the Ralbag is appealing, it doesn’t explain why the Torah would suddenly begin referring to Moshe as an “angel”. Only four verses before the angel verse, we are told [Shemot 14:15] “Hashem said to Moshe…” Not to “the angel”, but to plain old “Moshe”. So it makes much more sense that the “angel” is something or someone other than Moshe. The question is: what?

Two clarifications are required in order to address this question. First, let’s revisit the definition of the word “angel”. Rav Yehoshua Zuckerman, formerly a Rav at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, extrapolates the definition of the Ralbag, who stated that an “angel” is another word for a Divine emissary. Rav Zuckerman[2] taught that anything that blindly and continually obeys Hashem’s will is called an “angel”. For instance, gravitation has one mission: to pull one mass towards another. The force of gravity always equals -GmM/r2, where m and M are two masses, r is the distance between the two, and G is the constant of universal gravitation. Rain or shine, happy or sad, no matter how close it happens to feel to Hashem at that moment, the force of gravity always does what it is supposed to do. And so, teaches Rav Zuckerman, the force of gravity is an angel.

The next clarification has to do with the type of angel that was sent between Am Yisrael and the Egyptians. Earlier we said that “The angel of Hashem… moved and went behind them”. This translation is imprecise. The Torah actually uses the words “Malach E-lokim” – “Angel of E-lokim”. Compare this with the [Shemot 3:2] “Angel of Y-H-V-H (Tetragrammaton)” that appeared to Moshe at the burning bush. E-lokim is one of the names of Hashem and the Tetragrammaton is another. What is the difference between the two? Recalling that each of Hashem’s names emphasizes one of the Divine Attributes, the name E-lokim symbolizes the Attribute of Justice and is usually associated with Hashem working through nature. Not only does E-lokim have the same gematria (numerical value) as the word “haTeva (nature)”, but nature, similar to justice, works through immutable laws. If a person jumps off a bridge, he is going to fall due to the force of gravity, no matter how much regret he has for his rash actions. The laws of nature do not understand “Sorry”.

Putting these two clarifications together, it would be fair to say that the “angel of Hashem” and the pillar of cloud were one and the same. Let’s return to the scene at the Red Sea. The pillar of cloud had moved from its natural location at the front of the camp to the rear of the camp, between Am Yisrael and the Egyptians. What was the purpose of this manoeuvre? The Torah answers that the pillar of cloud caused a complete blackout over the Egyptian camp. It blocked out not only the sun but also the pillar of fire that was illuminating the camp of Am Yisrael, as well. The Egyptians saw absolutely nothing. The Abarbanel, writing in “Zevach Pesach”, his commentary on the Pesach Haggadah, explains that Hashem used the cover of darkness to lure the Egyptians into the Red Sea after it split[3]. According to the Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, the pillar of cloud served another purpose: the Egyptians were using catapults to fire rocks at Am Yisrael. The pillar of cloud “intercepted” these prehistoric Qassam rockets before they could do any damage. Perhaps the cloud contained swirling winds or maybe the air density (ρ) was much greater inside the cloud. The mechanism is less important than the conclusion: that the pillar of cloud was acting exactly like a cloud should act. It was acting like a bunch of molecules floating around in a gaseous state in order to perform Hashem’s will. It was behaving like an angel. Using this explanation, we can now reinterpret the verse as “The angel of Hashem, who had been going in front of the Israelite camp [as the pillar of cloud], moved and went behind them, [that is to say that] the pillar of cloud moved away from in front of them and stood behind them.”

Hold on a second – wasn’t the pillar of cloud really the Divine Presence, a spiritual entity? How come it was suddenly began behaving like a combination of Iron Dome and a smoke grenade launcher? I suggest that we can learn a tremendous lesson from this duality. Rav Shlomo Ephaim Luntschitz, writing in the “Kli Yakar”, explains that Hashem’s infinite presence cannot directly permeate our finite world. It must be enclosed within a physical vehicle in order to exist in our corporeal world. This was the purpose of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. Similarly, this is the purpose of a synagogue. But there is a back door for Hashem’s Presence to enter our world and that is through the forces of nature. As opposed to Spinoza, who viewed Hashem and nature as two sides of the same reality, Judaism sees Hashem as manifesting His power by commanding over the forces of nature. The ethereal “Y-H-V-H” who “went before them by day” was the exact same “Angel of E-lokim” who stood behind them at night[4].

Forward, aft, up, and down, no matter where you look you can see G-dliness. You only have to know what you’re looking for.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), better known by his Graecized name as Gersonides or the abbreviation of first letters as Ralbag, was a philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer / astrologer. The commentary of the Ralbag on the Torah is being edited and published by Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, where my two sons learn.

[2] As quoted by Rav Dudi Spitz.

[3] They would have never entered the sea had they been able to see it. “Do you think those walls of water might crash over our heads? Not a chance…” The Egyptians might have been evil but they weren’t stupid.

[4] It would be straightforward to contrast between “night” and “day” here, but this is a topic for another shiur.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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