Parshat Vayera: Attending to Angels

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“It’s such romantic house,” I thought. It was charming, freshly painted, and in walking distance to our favorite bookstore. The low price should have raised alarm bells. But we were so busy trying to assess “the bones” of the house (whatever that might mean) and imagining ourselves basking in warm sunlight in the little breakfast nook, that we missed the larger picture. There were warning signs, but we blindly ignored them, and applied for a mortgage, feeling very adultish.

Truth be told, I had long nurtured a slightly unhealthy love of real estate. As a child I dreamed of houses. When I turned four, I asked my parents for a birthday party with a real estate theme, and my father made origami houses for party favors. My obsession with real estate, coupled with inexperience and enthusiasm, may explain the mess we found ourselves in.

The first week, as I exited the back door of our new house, I tried not to notice the neighbor’s yard, which was strewn with….trash? I convinced myself that the neighbors were merely eccentric.

Gradually, a hard truth came into focus…we were stuck between a bullet and a target. The woman next door had problems, and for reasons that we can never know and that will never matter, she decided that we were the cause of those problems.  We had unwittingly entered a war zone. She screamed and swore at my toddlers, or tried to sic her menacing dog on them. She blasted obscene music when our friends came by, and threatened us. We tried to woo her with freshly baked treats. When that did not work, we tried to firmly insist that she change her behavior.  We tried reason, we tried ignoring her (unsurprisingly, that really sent her over the edge).

The next two years were terrifying. We felt trapped and terrorized. I worked through many different ways of coping. I examined my actions. Was I doing something to incite her? We built a fence. We called the police. We consulted with a lawyer. I learned to meditate. Every night my husband and I would calm and console each other, and try to strategize our way out. We increasingly felt more isolated and more scared.

We learn in Pirke Avot (4:1), “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” There were lessons to learn from my neighbor. But it can be hard to learn when you are afraid or angry, when you cannot get perspective, when you are so focused on finding an escape route that you are blind to your present moment.

When I look back on our time in that house, I remember feeling crazy all of the time. I also remember our baby taking her first steps, breaking the Yom Kippur fast with our friends, and dancing with my brother in the tiny kitchen. But so many of my memories of this time are fogged over with worry and the adrenaline rush of movement. I mostly remember feeling as if I were in constant motion.

Some time later, when I could get perspective, I realized that the woman who terrorized us was an angel sent by God.

I may have lost some of you here…sentiments about angels are not frequently (or comfortably) uttered by many contemporary Jews of any denomination or flavor. But angels are all over the Tanach, the Talmud, and mystical texts – and I want to suggest that we look anew at the idea of angels in our midst.

The Hebrew word for angel, mal’ach, means messenger. In Tanach, sometimes angels are identified as divine beings, and sometimes, as in this week’s Torah portion, they are referred to as “anashim,” people. Sometimes angels’ messages are thrilling or pleasant (as in our Torah portion this week), but sometimes angels may appear menacing – think of Jacob’s famous wrestling match. And sometimes angels’ messages appear mundane at first glance, but turn out to contain deeper, hidden meanings. An example of this type of angel occurs in Genesis 37 when a mysterious stranger comes upon Joseph wandering in a field and gives him directions. Our biblical narrative hinges on this seemingly inconsequential “walk on role” – the angel who pops in, delivers his message, and exits stage right.

The woman next door was an angel because, after all, how could my family have taken our the next step, and moved on to seek a new life somewhere else, if not for her ? It couldn’t have happened any other way because it didn’t happen any other way. I have lived in my “new” neighborhood, blessedly surrounded by friends, for ten years now. And every now and then I thank God for sending that angel who helped me to find my way here. But sometimes I wonder about that time of my life…was I so focused on reacting to the angel that I missed seeing God? What did I miss out on in my fog of anxiety, in my rush to get to the next scene?

In the beginning of Parshat Vayera, God appears to Abraham as he is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham does an odd thing at that moment. He ignores God and rushes out to meet three men, or angels, who appear before him. Abraham is a whirlwind of activity as he offers these men hospitality. He runs and bows before them, brings water, washes their feet, and fetches food. Abraham seems to almost leap off the page at a frenetic pace, as the text emphasizes the speed at which he moves. And even when the men rise to leave after delivering their surprising message about Abraham and Sarah’s future child, Abraham walks with them to see them off. Eventually, the men leave, and then the Torah tells us “Abraham remained standing before God.” (Genesis 18:22)

Only when the men/angels leave is Abraham able to be still, only then is Abraham finally able to attend to God. And it is then, when the angels leave, when Abraham is still, that he is able to do something extraordinary. It is then that Abraham addresses God directly and argues with God about saving the innocent people of Sodom.

Sometimes the needs of others, or the lessons they need to teach us, are so loud and so urgent that we lose sight of everything else. I think that is what happened to Abraham when he saw those three men walking toward him. This is not necessarily wrong – in Abraham’s case, he is able to hear the very important message that the men have to bring him because he gives them his full attention. That is, perhaps, how you know that a human is an angelic messenger – you just can’t help but give them your full attention.

If I could speak  to my younger self – that new mother full of hopes and anxiety – I would tell her that she is actually exactly where she needs to be, that the story needs to unfold, and that she must let it do exactly that. Sure, it is a story about the pitfalls of first home ownership. But more importantly it is about listening to what angels come to tell us. They are not always kind, but they always come to teach us, or show us the next step. I needed to attend to the angel, and ignore God in that moment. But when the angel left, it was time to be still – and notice that God had been with me all along.

About the Author
Dr. Rachel B. Posner is a licensed psychologist and cognitive behavioral psychotherapist who writes about the intersection between religion and psychology. She is currently studying to become a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion.
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