The Angel that Goes Before Us

10 FEBRUARY 2018 / 25 SHEVAT 5778

Parsha Summary

“These are the judgments (mishpatim) which you will place before them...” (Shemos 21:1) Moses informs the people of numerous ethical and ritual laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers to observing the Sabbatical Year, Shabbat, and the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. This parsha includes rules of sacrificial offerings, the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk, and introduces a system of compensation for bodily harm. The covenant between the Children of Israel and God is sealed with the words,   "Whatever God has spoken, we will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7), and Moses spends forty days alone with God on the mountain.

Have you ever seen an angel?

“Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and listen to him. . . . My Name is in him.” (Exodus 23:20-21)


In the midst of ethical and ritual laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers to the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and a system of compensation for bodily harm, we are introduced to . . . an angel. A  מַלְאָךְ֙. After being instructed to obey this angel who we are told speaks for God, who we are told will bring us into the Land, we are assured that if we are obedient to this angel and serve God, God will “remove illness from our midst” (25) and no woman in the land will miscarry or be barren. 

I read this parsha every year for close to fifteen years before I ever saw the angel in it, but there he is. God has promised since Abraham that God would be with us. Why now an angel? Who is this angel? What is an angel?   

Are you perplexed? 

I am perplexed.  

Good news is, there is help for us. 

The angels, teaches Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, are incorporeal. They are intelligences without matter, yet they are nevertheless created beings – beings changeable in form. They appear at times as male and at others as female, having no permanent bodily form independent of the mind of those who perceive them. What do these beings do? God considers these beings, alternatively considers the world of ideals, and produces existing beings. Thus all parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actual form, are produced through angels. Natural forces and angels? Identical. God gave the seed – maybe that’s like a stem cell – formative power, and that power is called “angel.” 

Look at that too directly and I feel like I’m trying to grasp vapor. Taken a bit in the peripheral, I can almost float through my mind the concept of intelligences as beings without matter that express the form of the mind of those who experience them. Angels. 

In another section of the same Guide, Maimonides explains in a more straightforward way that “angel” means messenger. That could be simple, except he goes on to say that everyone entrusted by God with a certain mission is a messenger. An angel. 

Like Moses?


Or  . . . maybe not. 

Maybe  . . . a מַלְאָךְ֙ – malach – angel – is a heavenly agent for God closely associated with God. 

When we come across a reference to angels in the Torah, Rabbi Ezra Bick directs us in a very different direction from Maimonides. He counsels that we take things as literally as we can. In most cases, the intention of the verse about an angel is probably to refer to God. Perhaps the action of an angel adds a layer showing God’s action as indirect. 

For example, when an angel calls out to Hagar in the wilderness and tells her to return to Sarah (Bereisheet 15:7-12), we could simply understand it to refer to the voice of God. The first person singular makes that understanding plausible. “He said to her: I shall greatly increase your seed; it shall not be numbered for multitude.” The “I” here is certainly God, and not actually the angel. 

Similarly, the angel who stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac speaks in first person and says, “for now I know that you are fearful of God, for you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.” (Bereisheet 22:12)

These references offer limited assistance in understanding the verses in Mishpatim because here the literal interpretation doesn’t associate the angel closely with God, but distinguishes him from God. God isn’t speaking in the first person through the angel, God is foretelling an event that will take place that involves an angel. 

“Behold. I am sending an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and listen to him. Do not exasperate him, because he will not pardon your disobedience, since My Name is in him.” (Exodus 23:20-21)

Sanhebrin 38b indicates that the words “My name is in him” means that he is the angel Mattatron whose name is like the Name of his Master. Mattatron is equal in gematria (a system that equates numerical value to Hebrew letters and words) to Shaddai, one of God’s names. The exact meaning of the name Shaddai is unknown, but in Exodus it is the name by which God was known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Traditionally, we don’t pronounce Mattatron’s full name. He goes by the name “Mattat,” and is the Minister of the Interior, more or less. The angel over all the angels. An angelic supervisor. 

However, not only wasn’t he always in that position, before he was promoted, he wasn’t even an angel.

Back in Genesis (Bereisheet 5:21-23) we read, 

Chanoch lived 65 years and he fathered Metushalach. Chanoch walked with God for 300 years . . . and had sons and daughters. Chanoch lived for 365 years. Chanoch walked with God, and he wasn’t, because God took him.

We don’t have to decide whether or not we agree with the worldview that connects this angel with Chanoch, but in thinking about the angel in Mishpatim, we must consider it. 

It seems Chanoch wavered between being a complete tzadik and a pretty horrible human. Some periods in his life, he acted righteously. Other times, the opposite. God took him during a period of righteousness. For this explanation to make any kind of sense, we have to understand the context. Within this worldview, there are two types of spiritual natures in the world. On the Day of Judgment, God takes those natures into account. The side of Chesed makes it easy for a person to have all the right character traits. The side of Gevurah means the person will struggle with the yetzer hara. All. The. Time. The yetzer hara is something like our most basic and base impulses. Not bad, unless they take over everything. The idea is, for a person from the side of Gevurah with a very powerful yetzer hara, even a small act of kindness might take considerable effort and self-discipline. 

Chanoch, born of Gevurah, was at battle all of his life with his yetzer hara.  Out of mercy, when his behavior swung toward righteousness, God took him. 

Stay with me here. 

Within this understanding, when the light of God unifies with something, that thing becomes Heavenly light. It ceases to be physical on any level. Our bodies, rather than being the outermost expression of our souls as we have considered before, remain in relationship with but distinct from our souls. If they didn’t, our bodies would turn into pure light. 

What does it mean to go from being Chanoch, a flesh-and-blood human being, to an angel who in some way contains the name of God? 

. . . 

Great question. Okay, let’s hold onto that question and consider this:

Rashi claims that the angel here is the same angel as the angel God promises in parashat Ki-Tisa. 

Remember Ki-Tisa? Technically it hasn’t happened yet this year, but we will recognize it when we get there: Sin of the golden calf, Moses negotiates a bit with God, God agrees not to destroy all of the Jews and says,

“Ascend from here, you and the people whom you have taken out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I have promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying: I shall give it to your seed. I shall send an angel before you, and I shall expel the Canaani, the Emori, the Chitti, the Prizi, the Chivi, and the Yevusi. To a land flowing with milk and honey, for I will not ascend in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I devour you on the way." (Exodus 33:1-3)

The angel of Ki-Tisa is distinct from God. 

“I shall send an angel . . . for I will not ascend in your midst.”

Perhaps Mishpatim is prophesy of the outcome of the sin of the golden calf, but if so, it’s a confusing prophesy. Moses rejects the angel’s leadership: “if Your countenance not go with us, do not take us up from here.” (33:15)

And God acquiesces: “God said to Moses: This thing as well, which you have demanded, shall I grant, for you have found favor in My eyes and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:17)

We have not made an exhaustive study, but while many things are possible, and nothing is certain, from these texts we might gather a sense that:

•    Angel leadership and God leadership isn’t the same thing, and Moses prefers God leadership.

•    The angel who goes before us into an unkown and potentially dangerous place to prepare it for us was possibly once a human who struggled mightily with the yetzer hara and was unified into God becoming a supervisory angel who can act in ways other angels in the Torah cannot.  

•    Some angels are God in action, and others are distinct from God.

•    Angels are messengers of God and messengers of God are angels.

•    Angels are intelligences, beings without matter that express the form of the mind of those who perceive them. 

And if we fast forward a bit, in the Book of Joshua we can wonder whether or not it was also this angel who did, finally, bring us in to the Land:

When Joshua was in Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and saw a man standing opposite him, with his sword drawn in his hand. Joshua went to him and asked him, "Are you for us, or for our adversaries?" He answered him, "No. But I am the captain of the host of God; I have now come.” And Joshua fell to the earth and worshiped, and said to him, what does the Lord say to your servant?” And the captain of the host of God said to Joshua, “Take of your shoe, for you stand in a holy place.” And Joshua did so." (Joshua 5:13-15)

A holy place. 

A place made safe.

A place free of illness and barrenness.

A place where angels are messengers and messengers are angels and where people know that the formative power in a seed . . . or maybe a stem cell . . . is an angel. Where people are watching for angels, and maybe angels are waiting to be noticed so they can take form in the minds of those who perceive them. 

There is a midrash that teaches that the bush had been burning for a long time and people, dozens of people, maybe hundreds, had passed by and failed to notice it before Moses came along. 

Who knows? Maybe there were times Moses had passed by the burning bush without seeing it, too. 

But then one day, Moses turned. He saw the bush, and it wasn’t eaten by the fire. And in the proximity of a human being and God together, the ground became holy.

And Moses, one of God's messengers, took off his shoes.