An "angel" is a being with a divine task. Our tradition teaches us that ordinary human beings--yes, including you and me--are able to bring God into the world, and when we do, we, too, act as angels. Parashat Terumah was my bar mitzvah Torah portion, so this week's lesson holds a special place in my heart.
From Where Does My Help Come?
You know the old joke.
A flood has trapped a pious man—and in these old jokes, it’s always a man—on the roof of his house. He had ignored the radio warnings urging all residents to leave, for he said to himself, “I’m a good man, and God will save me.” As he waits for salvation, a helpful neighbor paddles up to his roof in a rowboat. “Climb in,” she says, but our guy refuses. “I’m a good man, and God will save me.” As the waters rise threateningly high, a rescue chopper appears out of the darkness and lowers its ladder to the man. But he refuses to board, saying, “I’m a good man, and God will save me.” The helicopter flies on, the waters rise, and the man drowns.
Arriving unhappily in Heaven, the man demands an audience with God. “I’m a good man,” he asserts to the Maker of Heaven and Earth, “and I trusted in you. Why did this happen?” God replies, “I sent you a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What the hell are you doing here?!”
So let me ask you: What makes this joke funny?
Part of this joke’s appeal is that it turns theodicy on its head. “Theodicy” is the term that refers to the attempt to explain why bad things happen in a world created by a powerful and loving God. Our joke seems to present the classic challenge to theodicy: a good person who trusts in God loses his life despite his innocence. But the joke is funny, in part, because God flips the script. God did send the miracles, God did intervene in history, God did respond in a simplistic way to the justified pleas of a deserving believer. But the man, nebech, doesn’t have the wisdom to recognize divine intervention when it stares him in the face.
What makes this joke so memorable, I think, is that it succinctly depicts the challenges we all face in trying to understand suffering. We wish that God would reward the deserving with comfort on earth even as our experience persistently reminds us that bad things regularly happen to good people.
I’d like to suggest as well that the joke reflects a deeply Jewish way of perceiving God’s presence in the world, which we also encounter in this week’s Torah portion.
In Parashat Terumah, which, by the way, is my own bar mitzvah portion, God instructs Moses to gather the materials for the Mishkan. The word mishkan means “dwelling-place,” and it refers to the portable mini-temple that the Israelites constructed in the wilderness. “Let them make me a sanctuary,” God says, “so that I might dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). These words—which, by the way, are written here on my tallis—form the foundation of the entire priestly system imagined and described by the Torah. At the sanctuary, any individual Israelite can bring an offering to God, earning a unique and exclusive audience with the Eternal. Though God’s presence is usually too foreign and powerful to be perceived, in this special place, every single person has the opportunity to approach the divine.
The Eternal sees, in the parashah, that human beings need to be able to connect with their Creator, and God offers them a way to do just that. But God doesn’t build the Mishkan. Rather, the entire community is involved. God commands Moses to instruct the people to give artisans the materials to build a holy space. Once built, the priests will facilitate every Israelite’s opportunity to come close to God; and the sacrifices that each person offers involve them directly in the divine encounter. In other words, it is through the activity of individual human beings that God’s presence is sustained in our midst.
The building of the Mishkan, with its numerous chapters of detailed instructions followed by their precise execution, may seem at first blush to be a dull obstacle standing between our people’s escape from Egyptian slavery and their arrival as free people in the Promised Land. In fact, though, the Mishkan represents a fundamental Jewish claim, perhaps the very idea that our redemption from Egypt merited us to receive: that God’s presence can and does dwell among us, though we usually need the help of other people to perceive it.
There is a beautiful teaching that ties this principle to the joke we started with. Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher, insisted that much of what we read in the Torah is a metaphor. Accordingly, he offers a brief comment on angels: וכבר ידעתָ שעִנין 'מלאך' שָלִיח, “We know that an angel is actually a ‘messenger’ (shaliach), and so, every person who is entrusted with a certain mission—who performs a particular mizvah—is an angel” (Guide to the Perplexed 2:6). In other words, Maimonides sees human beings as agents of the divine will, and when we discharge our duties—when we do the right thing—then we ourselves become angels.
And so it is for the radio announcer, the rowboat paddler, and the helicopter pilot. Each of them was an angel to our misguided, if pious, protagonist. Each of them was doing the work of God, which the man could only realize in retrospect (and from the “other side”).
Things aren’t so different for us. When we think back to critical moments in our lives, either single events or longer periods, we might realize that a person or group of people worked hard to make our lives better, more healthy and whole. These people were, for a time at least, angels. And we can turn the gaze inward as well: There may have been times when we, too, served as shlichim, as agents of God in performing a task of divine will. Indeed, in one way of looking at our lives, we might be offered a constant array of opportunities to bring God’s presence into the world, achieving again and again the privilege of serving, if only briefly, as an angel.
Parashat Terumah teaches us that human beings make manifest God on earth. The Children of Israel are responsible for constructing the Mishkan; and once they do, God dwells among them.
The same possibility lies before us today. When we look with angelic eyes, we may discern how we can build something beautiful and sacred. Let us work together to strengthen our community to make space for one another to encounter God. And may we find the wisdom and the courage to accept our roles as messengers of the divine when called to do so, bringing us, step by step, just a little bit closer to one another and to God.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”