Every night, as I tuck my children into bed, we look forward to singing the bedtime Sh’ma. The music – combined with the powerful words – help the children transition from their day into sleep.
One of the prayers we recite, colloquially referred to as “Hamalach,” has its roots in this week’s parashah. Though often thought of as a prayer for children, I believe it has profound and relevant messages for all of us.
The words are from the blessing that Jacob offers to his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh in 48:16: “May the angel who redeems me from all harm bless the youths, and in them may my name be recalled, the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac. And may they multiply like fish in the land.” Among the many questions this text raises, one stands out for me: What’s with the angel?
Angels are peppered throughout biblical and apocryphal texts, including psalms, the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah, and the Book of Daniel. The concept of angels as guardians – for us as individuals and as a nation – was well developed by talmudic times. The Rabbis believed that it is through angels that we experience divine providence on a daily basis. There are even hierarchies of different types of angels, carrying out God’s will and acting on the world.
The term used in our parashah for angel, as elsewhere in the Torah, is “malach,” often translated as “messenger,” implying “divine messenger.” It is a malach who stays Abraham’s hand as he is about to slay his son Isaac, and a malach who speaks to Moses from the burning bush. Why did God speak with us through an intermediary in these situations? Why does Jacob seem to ask an angel to watch over his grandchildren, versus appealing directly to God?
To most modern Jews, the concept of angels seems foreign. Angels are the stuff of Renaissance Christian art, or the subject of pop-culture creation (remember the show “Touched by an Angel?”) Yet in fact, Judaism has a rich tradition of belief in angels. Whether you subscribe to this belief or not, it begs a larger, deeply relevant question: How can we relate to a transcendent God who so often feels distant from us?
In our verse, it is clear that Jacob is referring to a specific angel who was sent by God to protect him throughout his life, as Rashi explains. Another commentator, Radak, expands on this idea: “The actions of God are through intermediaries, and ‘malachim’ are sent from God to serve God, to protect people…” But why do we need an intermediary? And why would Jacob ask an angel to carry out his blessing, and not God?
Sforno (Italian, late 15th -16th centuries) was also troubled by this question, and resolves it by saying in fact that it is a prayer asking God to command the angel to bless his grandchildren, not a prayer directly to the malach. Yet the alternative is also possible, that Jacob was in fact addressing the angel.
To me, the trope of angels throughout our tradition reflects the fact that it often feels difficult, if not impossible, to connect with a transcendent God. It is significant that the verb “save” (Hebrew “goel”) in our verse is in the present tense. Clearly, Jacob felt the divine presence in his life, and wanted to pass on that sense of God’s imminence to his grandchildren. By reciting this blessing, we too affirm, or at least express the hope, that God truly is a constant presence in our lives.
When I fall into bed at night, I try to remember to say these words again for myself. While we adults may no longer be scared of monsters in the closet, there are plenty of demons that plague us in the night – our worries, regrets, uncertainties. Reciting the blessing that Jacob recited can help us all start each night with a clean slate. Whether we believe in actual angels or not, it reassures us, adults and children alike, that we are not alone.