I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. (Exodus 23:20-22)
Who is this angel?
In Hebrew, the word is malaach—you know, like maalachei hasharet from the Shabbat evening hymn Shalom Aleichem. But if the angels we sing about in the Shabbat song – welcoming them, asking them into our homes, asking them to bless us and finally bidding them goodbye – seem to be heavenly beings, this malaach in our reading today seems different. The word malaach literally means “messenger.” In Greek, the word for messenger is angelos. We usually associate the word “angel” with a cute little fellow — or perhaps not so little — sometimes with rosy cheeks, almost always with wings. And while there is some basis for this image in the more colorful prophecies, a chubby cherub is most definitely not the image for a malaach our text describes above, and in those like it in other parts of the Bible.
In fact, it’s often hard to know if the biblical narrative is speaking of a heavenly being or one of flesh and blood. But I think that it might make more sense to assume we’re talking about a human messenger. This is what we find in the early midrashic interpretation of the passage above, in Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai:
“I am sending an angel” – that is, a prophet;
“before you”– and he will shine a light before you like a candle that lights up the entire house;
“to guard you on the way” – and he will warn and teach you about the words of the Torah.
While this interpretation assumes that Moses is the prophet in this story, it also leaves open the
possibility for seeing this situation in each and every generation.
However, not all rabbinic commentaries agree that this prophet was Moses; for example, we find in the relatively late Midrash Tehilim (ed. Buber 90:9):
When the Israelites were leaving Egypt, Moses cried out to the Lord and said “I know not the way!”, as it says, “show me Your ways” (Exodus 32:13)
So the Holy Praised One said to him: “I am sending an angel before you…”
But Moses answered God: Even if you send many angels, “Unless YOU go in the lead, do not make us leave this place” (33:15)
To which God replied: OK, I will do as you decree! As is written, “I will go in the lead and I will lighten your burden” (33:14).
To this tradition of divine guidance, we might add what we read each year in the Passover Haggadah:
Lo al y’dei malaach—God took us out of Egypt, not by the hands of an angel, not by the hands of a heavenly being, not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy Praised One alone [took us out of Egypt].
So which is it? An angel with wings? A prophet? Or just God alone?
The Italian-born rabbi-turned-professor-of-Bible at Hebrew University, Umberto Cassuto, offers the following solution to this seeming contradiction:
The Torah never intended to describe an unmitigated relationship between God and the People
of Israel. The language of the Torah simply means that God’s presence is extended to include
the actions of human beings who are devoted to God’s way. Central to his argument is the
verse: “My name is in him”; (23:21).
We will always be challenged by the question of defining and discerning God’s will. But I see it as a combination of three things: that which we find in our tradition, plus our own common sense and the will of the community. What Cassuto’s comments allow us to understand is that the salvation of humanity, the guidance on the path through life and the protection from evil, are all jointly held responsibilities. Some of us might turn to God for help, blame God when things go wrong, or thank God when things go well, but in essence, it is we human beings – whether through our deeds, our words, our writing, our art and our love – who are the angels, the messengers, who protect ourselves on our journey and bring ourselves safely to our destination. So “God’s will” is actually a partnership of ancestral voices, present community, and each of our selves.