“It Was My Turn to Go Next:” Kol Nidre 5778/2017 Drash by Rabbi Lisa Edwards
I read recently that in times of stress and uncertainty, our brains may take us back to things that helped us long ago. It’s a way of helping us feel grounded. A kind of comfort food for the soul and the heart, I suppose. That must be why all this season of preparation for these Days of Awe, some of my most beloved — longest loved — teachings and texts have been circling, comforting me, residing within me.
In 1955 fiction writer Bernard Malamud published a short story entitled, Angel Levine.
I didn’t read it until the 1960s, but once it entered my consciousness, it has never left.
Manischewitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities.
That’s how this modern day Job story begins (did i say modern? That’s how this 1955 NYC Job story begins). Though a short story, it’s too long to read it all to you tonight, but you can find it online. [please don’t look for it right now though]
Manischewitz loses his business, suffers excruciating back pain, his children are tragically gone from his life, and his dear wife, Leah, previously healthy, takes ill, her life clearly endangered. Manischewitz prays to God:
“My dear God, my soul, sweetheart, did I deserve this to happen to me?”
He asks that he and Leah be restored to health.
After which he walks into his living room to discover “a burly Negro reading a newspaper”… wearing a somewhat frayed suit and a derby hat, who introduces himself as Alexander Levine.
Through timid conversation, Manischewitz learns that Levine claims to be an angel temporarily without wings, who was a lifelong Jew. And furthermore, that the length of the angel’s current probation depends on the outcome of their meeting. It does not go well…
The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of some jokester. Is this what a Jewish angel looks like? he thought. This I am not convinced.
But he asked one last question. “So if God sends to me an angel, why a black? Why not a white that there are so many of them?”
“It was my turn to go next,” Levine explained.
“It was my turn to go next,” is a phrase that has lived with me all these years, and echoed strongly these past months. This is not a comment about death — it’s about “making a difference,” it’s about helping repair what is wrong, it’s about stepping up when we can step up. And it’s about taking turns — no one has to do it all.
Maybe it’s because the name of the city we live in, the City of Los Angeles, means “City of the Angels;” or maybe it’s because Della Reese, the singer and actor, who played a major role in the old TV show “Touched by an Angel,” was also the minister of her own church called Understanding Principles for Better Living that met at 6090 W. Pico Blvd. in the City of Angels (YES, that is the address of BCC’s home, and yes, our building housed Della Reese’s UP! Church as she called it for short (understanding principles).
It may or may not surprise you to learn that angels abound in Jewish tradition. They seem to be everywhere. Although not typically portrayed in Jewish tradition as dancing on the head of a pin1, they are imagined as tiny and as human size andas larger than life; as good guys andtough guys; they have wings ornot; speak to us or not: they guard the Garden of Eden with fiery swords after Adam and Eve head out from there; they speak tenderly to Hagar when she finds herself in difficult situations; stop Abraham from taking a knife to his beloved son Isaac; they are athletes — saving Lot’s life when the mob comes after him in Sodom, and then running with him and his family as they escape from the hellfire and brimstone raining down on their city; Jacob dreams them climbing ladders down to earth from heaven and back up again keeping him company on his first lonely night away from home; and they escort him and his entourage back home a couple of decades later; some say it was an angel who wrestled with Jacob that fateful night; and they’re magicians too — in the passage from Exodus I read to you earlier this evening — “An angel of the Eternal appeared to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush…a bush all aflame, yet not consumed.” [Exodus 3:2]
In the Book of Numbers, it is an angel who blocks the road that the prophet Balaam is traveling on his donkey. The angel, visible only to the donkey, inspires the animal to speak in human speech, stopping Balaam from cursing the Israelites, turning his words into sonorous blessings instead, blessings that Jews still often sing when we enter a synagogue — ma tovu ohalekha, Ya’akov — how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, mishkenotekha, Yisrael — your dwelling places, O Israel. And those are just a few of the angels who appear in Torah, and there are many, many more in other of our sacred writings.
Now that i’ve mentioned angels to you, you’ll find them in a lot of places in our prayerbook tonight and tomorrow, and in our Shabbat prayers too. “Creatures Celestial,” “angelic spirits” are among the translations we find in contemporary siddurim (prayerbooks/ ex. Sim Shalom, p.108-9) setting the scene, as our prayerbook will do tomorrow, for the Kedushat Hashem,recalling a scene from the Book of Isaiah in which Isaiah himself visits God in heaven and encounters the flying seraphim2 — winged angels Each of them had six wings, [he narrates in chapter 6]: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs [private parts?], and with two he would fly.
And it is in imitation of these winged angels that Jews took up choreography for our prayer tomorrow morning, rising on our tip toes three times to imitate the angels themselves as we call to one another, just as they did:
[וְקָרָ֨א זֶ֤ה אֶל־זֶה֙ וְאָמַ֔ר] קָד֧וֹשׁ ׀ קָד֛וֹשׁ קָד֖וֹשׁ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבוֹדֽוֹ׃
[And one would call to the other,]
“Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”
So is any of this new to you? Have you given much thought in your life to angels in general? Or Jewish angels in particular?
Angels — messengers — inform and warn, rescue and guide and keep us company and in our liturgy they even, legend has it, defend us — as we’ll hear tomorrow morning during Unetaneh Tokefas the angels themselves tremble at the task set before them to be our defenders in so awe inspiring a time as this. When we ask who shall live and who shall die in the year to come, some Jewish legends say whether our name is on that list depends on whether or not our particular angel was a good defense attorney.
Among more modern, secular, skeptical, rational Jews (I say that as if I am one!), we perhaps don’t much think about angels, maybe even favoring the translation “messenger” over “angel” when we encounter the word Malach and malachim in the Torah, from the Hebrew root לֹאך “to be sent,” as in “messenger sent by God.”
Rabbi Lionel Blue, of blessed memory, a British Reform rabbi who died last December at the age of 86, having been probably the first gay rabbi to come out (1980), once told an interviewer: “I went along with religion for many years not believing it, because after all a lot of it is not believable, but as I went on in life I began to trust it more and more and it reshaped me, made me a much nicer person … the religion thing worked.” Rabbi Blue claimed to be guided by a guardian angel whom he called Fred: “I hold his hand and we sit next to each other and we cuddle.”
Did I mention Rabbi Blue was gay?! I did, right? So gay!
In general in Jewish tradition, angels — though there are so many they threaten to overrun the place (heaven or earth) — do not seem to derive from formerly living people the way the more contemporary stories do. They are creatures of a different sort — of God’s making, but they do come in many shapes and sizes and so it should come as no surprise that someone like the famous scholar, physician, philosopher Maimonides in the 12th century decided to create a catalogue, albeit abbreviated, of angels.
The listing by Maimonides – who kind of resembles Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory in his propensity to organize everything — and his certainty that only he can get it right — is interesting if not overly useful. Jewish tradition in general is not so big on organizing information in useable ways. Try looking up a particular law in torah or Talmud. You need to wait a few centuries until Maimonides (12th c) and Joseph Caro and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th c) come along and attempt to organize it for the rest of us, and even then…not always easy to find what you might be looking for. So Maimonides’ angelology is not complete, but it gives a sense of what’s out there, including: angels who work for justice; angels known for courage and understanding; angels who hold up God’s throne and keep the Earth in its proper position in space; angels known for love, kindness, grace; beautiful angels, merciful angels, God-tending angels, angels who work to bring God’s kingdom to earth, and on and on…and those are just the good angels!3
(if you want a lot more you can get Maggie Anton (Parkhurst) to give you a tour of some of the more obscure texts she studies for the historical novels she writes).
So why do yousupposeangels abound in Jewish tradition (as well as Christian and Muslim tradition), as well as generic non-religious cultures that dote on guardian angels? Consider the stories that fill our movie and television screens and short story collections — especially favoring fallen angels who are trying to get their wings by helping a deserving human get out of a sticky situation.
What’s it all about — Angels?
Actually, i don’t want to take the time tonight to really invite a reply to those questions, but if all goes well tomorrow, i would invite anyone who would like to come have an impromptu conversation with me about angels in our lives. I’ll give you the time and room number tomorrow right before our afternoon break – someone remind me.
But as you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about what angels — real or dreamed up — do for us and for Judaism. And I have a few thoughts:
We don’t need hurricanes or earthquakes, fires or floods — but they come along anyway to remind us — of the fragility of life, the power of nature, how little control or say any of us has in whether we live or die. Angels — or the stories of them anyway — keep us moving on the right path, help us choose life, choose a life well lived no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Our grasp on life — life itself – is ephemeral — the veil between life and death is very porous — as Fran Chalin likes to remind me. Fran, by the way, who is BCC’s Cantorial Emerita, is a hospice chaplain and will be our guest speaker tomorrow at our Yizkor service,
So to have some angels around helping us stay on this side of it, or when the time comes, to cross over gently; and the idea that once over we ourselves might be able to still lend a hand on this side — all of that seems very comforting, doesn’t it?
And then there’s the loneliness factor. Whether we live alone in this life or with people, we can encounter loneliness. The idea of angels around — working for us and for God, no less, makes it less lonely.
And then there are the mysteries of life — stuff happens that we just can’t explain, or prove anyway. Sometimes the presence of angels can help explain.
And one more — when we doubt ourselves, or worse — when we fail to give others the benefit of the doubt, Jewish tradition comes along with a story that reminds me of something i need reminding of. I’m amazed how many of these stories – the ones i’m drawn to anyway – revolve around angels (good ones or tough guys).
I’ll share a few in our conversation tomorrow. [tomorrow: Satan time; angel of death and the sticks; attribute of Justice and the tav on the forehead]
The one I’d share now is based on God deciding to create human beings betzelem Elohim — in God’s image:
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: “A procession [of angels] pass in front of each human being, proclaiming: ‘Make way for the image of the Holy Blessed One.’” [Deuteronomy Rabbah, IV.4]4
It reminds me how I need to act in the world, as well as who I am encountering when interact with other people.
As compelling as the angels of ancient jewish stories are for me, there are some more contemporary ones that inspire me at least as much, especially in the times in which we currently live.
Some of these are stories of angels, but they are also real people who serve in my life like angels.
Not all of them are gone from this life, but some are. Some are people I actually knew — like BCC members Will Korthoff (whose yahrzeit is today) and Alex Wexler, both of blessed memory — who remind me nearly every day to be more aware of what i do to make a difference — big things and small — from turning off a light i’m not using to thanking God multiple times a day for the blessings all around us.
And some of my angels are writers that i did not know personally, but whose words help guide my life.
I even asked Cantor Juval if he might create a song out of two very short texts from one such writer — Audre Lorde, of blessed memory, lesbian feminist woman of color, poet, essayist, radical, librarian. She died in 1992 at age 58. I carried some of her words around with me in my pocket until the ink wore off the page and the page itself wore away. I call it my “stress text.” Cantor Juval being Cantor Juval did, by the way, write a song which we’ll hear in just a little while.
Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, part 2 [Perestroika] ends with a scene in Central Park in front of the great fountain and sculpture of the Angel Betheseda.
Do you know this statue in Central Park?
The play does not mention, by the way, that this sculpture was the first public sculptural art commission given to a woman in NYC — a lesbian, no less in 1864 — sculptor Emma Stebbins (b. 1815) [lovers for many years (until Cushman’s death) -from 1857 – when she met world-famous American actress Charlotte Cushman] but the play does note that the legend of Betheseda (a new Testament story, Gospel of John 5:2-4) takes place in Jerusalem: where the winged angel Betheseda landed – touching one foot to the ground — a fountain sprung up whose waters cured the sick — physically and spiritually. Its waters dried up after the second Temple was destroyed, but some believe that it will flow again some day. In Angels in America the statue becomes a symbol of death and of life, as the main character Prior says of angels near the end of part 2 (Peristroika):
“I like them [angels] best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight.”
The play itself, also an instrument of flight, so life affirming when we saw it first in the midst of the AIDS crisis, so poignant and relevant still, ends with the simple blessing, “More Life”(echoing the familiar refrain from tomorrow morning’s “choose life” Torah portion). [“The Great Work Begins.”]
“Bethesda Fountain is the social and spiritual center of Central Park,” writes one historian.5
The Fountain was commissioned during the Civil War and completed after it — a symbol of healing in a time when our country was in great need of healing (also during a time fresh water was finally brought to NYC, preventing a cholera epidemic).
Speaking of my grounding texts (by some of my angels). . . At Rosh Hashanah I read to you from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, but his first inaugural also comes to me these days — he spent the entire speech trying to prevent a civil war — his first great act as president was a failure. But he did bring a phrase into common parlance in the process:
“The better angels of our nature.”
I am struck by how timely the last few sentences of his speech are for us in this country today:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained[,] it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone 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. 6
Lincoln gave that speech on March 4, 1861. The south fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began on Apr 12, 1861 a little over a month after President Lincoln prevailed unsuccessfully upon the “better angels of our nature.”
Who are your angels?
What are the better angels of your nature?
From whom? From where? Do you gather strength in times of stress? Of uncertainty? In the anxious times or simply when it’s time for a change?
There was another possibility I didn’t mention in my list of why people might be drawn to the idea and stories of angels. Perhaps it is because we really do believe in angels. Indeed, perhaps they really do exist. Or perhaps they teach us to believe.
Friends. What do you believe? It’s Yom Kippur and we are gathered and perhaps our angels are gathered around us. It is this time — this day — haYOM — gifted to us by our ancestors to say, “you can do this. You can be a better person. You can grow. You can change. Each of us can always be a better person, more the person we want to be, more the person God wants us to be.” And we can take turns to challenge ourselves and each other to believe in something that seems unbelievable. We can take turns to try to change the world in small ways or grand.
Toward the end of Angel Levine, Manischewitz goes to Harlem to look for the angel he had disrespected the first time around. In pain, challenged in body and mind, fearful that his beloved wife Leah will die while he is gone, he finds Levine, half-drunk and much the worse for wear himself. Manischewitz struggles to say he believes that Levine is both a Jew and an angel, but he finally does so, thinking to himself,
If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.
His words, his belief, his act of faith work —
At the end of the story, Levine and Manischewitz take a subway together back to Manischewitz’s apartment building…Angel Levine assures him that all has been taken care of so …
torn by curiosity, Manischewitz followed the angel up four flights of stairs to the roof. When he got there the door was padlocked.
Luckily he could see through a small broken window. He heard a strange noise, as though a vibration of wings, and when he strained for a wider view, could have sworn he saw a dark figure borne aloft on strong-pinioned, magnificent black wings. A feather drifted down.
Manischewitz gasped as it turned white, but it was only snowing.
People. It may be your turn/our turn to go next. Maybe it means being there to take the next step. To do what needs to be done. Maybe it simply means only connecting with someone, encouraging each other to do something neither of you had imagined or believed possible.
Here are the two short passages from Audre Lorde that fell to pieces in my pocket. She wrote them not long before she died. The first one I first heard read at the Queer March on Washington in April 1993, just a few months after Audre Lorde had died from cancer in 1992 at age 58. It’s called
“Litany for Survival”7
I leave you the will to fight,
the desire to live,
the right to anger, to love, to joy,
to transform silence into language and action.
I leave you a litany for survival.
The second is called “Hope”:
Hope is a living state that propels us,
open-eyed and fearful,
into all the battles of our lives.
And some of those battles we do not win;
But some of them we do.>
Our dear friend, Rabbi Benay Lappe, likes to pass along another angel teaching from our tradition: over every new blade of grass that sprouts there is an angel whispering, “grow, grow.”
G’mar chatimah tovah, friends and angels, on this Yom Kippur may each of us be sealed in the book of life with a desire to live, to grow, to take our turn at transforming, propelled by hope and belief in ourselves and each other into the future that we will share.
INSTRUCTIONS: Some of you have a little bowl — will you pass them now so everyone gets handed only one bowl — and each of you please take a gift from me – a feather charm, an angel wing. There are many to choose from, but please don’t take too long deciding — you can trade them later or find another.
THEN the song can be sung
- In his novel Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins suggests: “Philosophers have argued for centuries about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but materalists have known all along that it depends on whether they are jitterbugging or dancing cheek to cheek.”
- וָאֶרְאֶ֧ה אֶת־אֲדֹנָ֛י יֹשֵׁ֥ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֖א רָ֣ם וְנִשָּׂ֑א וְשׁוּלָ֖יו מְלֵאִ֥ים אֶת־הַהֵיכָֽל׃
I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple.
שְׂרָפִ֨ים עֹמְדִ֤ים ׀ מִמַּ֙עַל֙ ל֔וֹ שֵׁ֧שׁ כְּנָפַ֛יִם שֵׁ֥שׁ כְּנָפַ֖יִם לְאֶחָ֑ד בִּשְׁתַּ֣יִם ׀ יְכַסֶּ֣ה פָנָ֗יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֛יִם יְכַסֶּ֥ה רַגְלָ֖יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֥יִם יְעוֹפֵֽף׃
Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.
וְקָרָ֨א זֶ֤ה אֶל־זֶה֙ וְאָמַ֔ר קָד֧וֹשׁ ׀ קָד֛וֹשׁ קָד֖וֹשׁ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבוֹדֽוֹ׃
And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”
וָאֶשְׁמַ֞ע אֶת־ק֤וֹל אֲדֹנָי֙ אֹמֵ֔ר אֶת־מִ֥י אֶשְׁלַ֖ח וּמִ֣י יֵֽלֶךְ־לָ֑נוּ וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי׃
Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6
- Here’s a quick overview of Maimonides’s 10 categories of angels:
ranking the angels from highest to lowest:
CHAYOT HA KODESH (holy creatures?)
The first and highest type of angels. They are known for their enlightenment, and they’re responsible for holding up God’s throne, and also for holding Earth in its proper position in space. The chayot ha kodesh emanate such powerful light that they often appear fiery. …
Members of the ophanim rank of angels never sleep, because they’re constantly busy guarding God’s throne in heaven. They are known for their wisdom. Their name comes from the Hebrew word “ophan,” which means “wheel,” due to the Torah’s description of them in Ezekiel chapter 1 as having their spirits encased inside wheels that moved along with them wherever they went.
ERELIM (great ones/exalted)
These angels are known for their courage and understanding. …
The hashmallim are known for their love, kindness, and grace. … the “angel of the Lord” who shows merciful kindness in Genesis chapter 22 of the Torah when the prophet Abraham is preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac.
SERAPHIM (seraph – “to burn”)
Seraphim angels are known for their work for justice. … The Torah records a vision that the prophet Isaiah had of seraphim angels near God in heaven: “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” (Isaiah 6:2-3).
Members of the malakhim rank of angels are known for their beauty and mercy. …
Angels within the elohim are known for their commitment to the victory of good over evil.
BENE ELOHIM (children of God)
The bene elohim focus their work on giving glory to God. ...Michael is mentioned in major religious texts more than any other named angel, and he is often shown as a warrior who fights for what’s right to bring glory to God. …
CHERUBIM (etymology unknown)
The cherubim angels are known for their work helping people deal with sin that separates them from God so they can draw closer to God. …Cherubim angels appear in the Torah’s account of what happened … in the Garden of Eden: (Genesis 3:24).
ISHIM (from ish — human/man)
The ishim rank of angels is the closest level to human beings. Members of the ishim focus on building God’s kingdom on Earth. …
Updated February 13, 2017
- This one spins around God’s creation of the first human beings in the opening chapter of Genesis, v. 27:
So God created the human beings in the divine image, creating [them] in the image of God…”
V’yivra Elohim et ha-Adam b’tzalmo b’tzelem Elohim bara oto...#
“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: ‘A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, “Make way for the image of God!”’ (Deut. Rab., 4:4)
Having been created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27), every human being is an icon. Humanity was the first icon to be created. The angels surrounding us are in some way declaring that to honor the image, the human being, is to honor the Creator, the Holy One. We are the representative image of God on earth. What we do, say, or give to another we do, say, or give to God.
Likewise what we fail to do, say, or give to another we fail to do, say, or give to God. This iconic aspect of our humanity has profound ethical and relational implications:
- Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for each other;
- Our fear of offending or hurting another human being must be as ultimate as our fear of offending or hurting God;
- Violence against another person is an act of desecration against God;
- Arrogance and condescension toward another person are blasphemous of God;
- The denial of another’s humanity is akin to the denial of God’s divinity; and
- Our love of neighbor mirrors and reveals our love of God.
Episcopal Priest Father Michael K. Marsh from Texas, this is his blog:
[followed by: ] See, says the Torah], how many watchmen guard you. When is this the case? When you observe the words of the Torah. Thus i have set two paths before you, blessing and curse, the blessing, if you will hearken to My words; and the curse, if you will not hearken to My words.”
- Sara Cedar Miller, Associate Vice President for Park Information and Historian at the Central Park Conservancy and author of “Central Park, An American Masterpiece.
- Closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural spent trying to keep the South from seceding MONDAY, MARCH 4, 1861
- [Audre Lorde, “A Burst of Light” Firebrand Books//
1934-1992, black lesbian feminist poet, essayist, novelist]
[from Rabbi Lisa Edwards]: One of my favorite Audre Lorde passages. I don’t know the source of it (in her writings). I learned it from former NYC Mayor David Dinkins – he used it in his speech to the queer March on Washington in April 1993, the march called “A Simple Matter of Justice.”