The children of Israel began their desert trek under direct divine guidance with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (See Exodus 13:21) Towards the end of this week’s parashah, Moshe was unexpectedly informed that the people’s divine guidance was to undergo a change:
Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I made ready. Pay heed to him and obey his voice. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your trespass, for My name is within him… (Exodus 23:20-21)
One trend among the sages sees this angel or messenger as God’s appointment of His highest representative, an angel known as Metatron. (See Sanhedrin 38b)
Rashi, on the other hand, sees this change in divine representation as a definite “downgrade” in divine representation brought on by the nation’s soon to be encountered misdeeds:
Here they are informed that in the future [they are] to sin and the Shekhina (the Divine Presence) says to them: ‘I will not go up in your midst’ (Exodus 33:3. See also Exodus Rabbah 32:2;3)
Another midrash, likely disquieted by Israel’s apparent fall from grace, takes a giant leap and finds a remedy to this malady in its identification of the angel or messenger with the deeds of the children of Israel:
Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you (Exod. 23:20) – Scripture says in reference to this verse: ‘For He will give His angels (messengers) charge over you, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). When a man performs a single mitzvah, one angel is assigned to guard over him; when he performs two mitzvot, two angels are assigned to him; when he performs all of the mitzvot, many angels are assigned to him, as it is said: For He will give His angels charge over you. (Tanhuma Mishpatim 19)
With an eye on the idea that one must “heed and obey”, this midrash puts responsibility for the nation’s protection squarely in the hands of God’s people. By carrying out God’s will one actually creates the angels who will protect the nation. The performance of the mitzvot then becomes both Israel’s purpose and its source of protection, giving ultimate power into the hands of God’s subjects by making their actions the ultimate arbiters of their fate.
The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb Alter, the second Rebbe of Gur (Poland, 19-20 century), takes this idea one step further. He broadens the sense of what is means to act as God’s messenger:
Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you – For all of the days of doing (weekdays), as it is written: ‘Six days shall you work’ (Exodus 20:8) – [which should be understood to mean that] you shall do work – and even though there is holiness stored in [this] doing and it [should be understood to] have a sense of being an “angel and messenger” to everything [in the world since] there is [in everything a] ‘living force’ from God be blessed, [for everything] is sent to the world in order to carry out the will of God, [therefore] there are mitzvot [to be found] in human deeds – only they are clothed (not obvious) in this-worldly matters and consequently require particular attention in guarding [and observing them]. ‘Do not defy him.’ Only one should know that this is also from the life-force from God may He be blessed ‘for My name is within him.’ ‘And you shall serve the Lord your God’ (Exodus 23:25) (Sfat Emet Shmot – Mishpatim 5631, Or Etzion ed. p. 218)
The Sfat Emet’s message is that the world is God’s stage and the divine is to be found in all things. Human beings are tasked with being God’s messenger, responsible for uncovering and revealing God’s presence in the world. Of course, misuse or misbehavior hide the divine life-force and make God’s name unrecognizable. This puts great responsibility in human hands, but it is also what makes true human dignity possible.