This Sunday I was fortunate to attend the N.Y. Giants football game at the New Meadowlands. Somewhere in the fourth quarter during a kickoff return, one of the players from the opposing team was hurt badly. Zack Follett, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions was struck hard in the helmet and laid on the field motionless for about five minutes. Medical personnel from both teams tended to him. Follett was placed on a stretcher and carted off the field.
What captured my attention during this scary episode was that members from both teams, including coaches, doctors, and, of course, the players (all of whom took off their helmets) gravitated to the center of the field. There they knelt on one knee and prayed as a group with many from opposing teams holding hands and bowing heads. I do not know the prayers they uttered. I imagine they were all individual. But, these two teams that were fierce, determined, and competitive just minutes earlier were now emotional and united. As Follett was rolled in a stretcher under the bleachers, the N.Y. Giants fans stood and applauded in a public sign of moral encouragement. The act exhibited the overarching ethic we feel instinctively when another is in pain.
This incident stirred me. Players get hurt weekly, and sadly, similar incidents occur with regularity. But, what captured my attention this time was the ethic that is inherent in each of us, even competitive athletes; we do not like to see our neighbor in pain. We have knee-jerk, visceral reactions that when we see another hurting, we intuitively want to turn it into healing.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, Abraham is tested by God and told to take his son, Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and prepare him for sacrifice. The text is as dramatic as a made-for-TV miniseries. Abraham ties his son to the altar, he grabs the knife, lifts it high above his son’s head, and is about to come down on the neck of Isaac with the blade when the voice of an angel intervenes and says, “Stop! Do not make a nick on the child.” Abraham unties his son and sacrifices a ram, conveniently found in the thicket of a nearby bush, in Isaac’s stead.
Why did the unnamed angel stop Abraham while God was silent? After all, God calls to Abraham and puts him to the test. Shouldn’t God have been the one to see that Abraham is now God-fearing? Why utilize the angel? Who was this angel?
In the Torah, we meet many angels but we know little about them? There is an angel in the story of Hagar and Ishmael, (16:7) “And the angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.” We learn of an angel in the story Jacob and his ladder, (31:11) “And the angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob’; And I said, ‘Here am I.'” And, we have the angel in our story of Vayera with the Akeidah mentioned above. In all of these cases, the angels are nameless and are messengers of God. That is all we know. We do not know what these angels look like, sound like, or act like. Are they more like humans or God or some combination of both?
Nevi’im and Ketuvim, the Prophets and Writings, offer more specifics about angels than the Torah, and while there is much discussion in rabbinic literature about the origin of the angels and their role, we know little about them from encounters in Genesis. Conceivably the angels that we meet in this portion and before are actually human messengers of God, as opposed to the image many conjure up of cherubs floating up and down from heaven to earth. A proof for this theory could be the set of “angels” that we meet earlier in this week’s portion at the entrance to the tent in Mamre. We read in the text (18; 1-2) that God appears to Abraham in the image of three men at the threshold of his tent. There, Abraham welcomes these men to his home, feeds them, and hears from them that he and Sarah will indeed have a child in their old age. Perhaps angels in the Torah look and act more like humans, but their message is inspired by God.
I suggest that the angel in the Akeida story is deeply troubled when it sees Isaac in pain, tied to the altar with the knife about to come down on his throat. The angel reacts intuitively, and saves Isaac’s life. Perhaps this act was more instinctive than thoughtful, more innate than deliberate.
We are all wired to be angels of sorts. It is part of an ethic each of us is born into that we never want to see another in pain – not in the streets or on a football field. When we do, our souls react; sometimes by yelling “Stop!” and other times with bent knees and private prayers in the middle of football fields. What we can learn from this experience is that the ethics and values that guide our lives are as much a part of our inherent nature as they are crafted by the environment in which we are nurtured. These ethics bring out the angel in each of us.
P.S. Zack Follett, the injured linebacker, was kept in Hackensack University Medical Center for 12 hours of observation. He now has full use of all of his extremities and all CT scans and X-rays were negative. He was released from the hospital the next morning and expects to return to the Detroit team soon.