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Today I would like to talk to you about the angel of death. I would like to tell you two stories, one of them related to this week’s Parsha, about the angel of death as seen from the eyes of chazal, from the eyes of our sages, and these two stories present two very different pictures of the human capacity to combat the angel of death.
I would like to try to explore with you how these stories drive with each other.
The first story is related in the Talmud in tractate Sukkah and there is a story about Solomon, King Solomon’s interaction with the angel of death that goes like this. So we know that Solomon was the wisest of all men. According to some legends, he spoke to the animals but he could also speak to the angel of death. So, one day, the Talmud says, he meets up with the angel of death and the angel of death, the malach hamavet, looking particularly dower. Solomon says, ‘what’s wrong, you know, why you are so upset? Angel of death said, ‘Ah, forget it, I don’t want to bother you with it. Why should I ruin your whole day’? Solomon says, ‘no really, tell me, maybe I could help you’. Angel of death says, ‘really, you want to know?’ Solomon say, ‘sure, lay it on me’. Angel of death said, ‘Solomon, you know that there’s two secretaries of yours, one that you really count on, help your whole administration run?’ Solomon says, ‘yeah, yeah’. Angel of death says, ‘I hate to tell you Solomon but they got to go’. Solomon says, ‘what, you mean, oh my gosh, there time has come? Thank you so much for telling me’ and he runs back to the palace and talk to his two secretaries. And he puts them up on his two fastest horses and dispatches them to Luz. Luz was the city by legend, the malach hamavet, the angel of death, was unable to penetrate, he could not kill anyone in Luz. So Solomon can outsmart that, he’s going to send these two secretaries to Luz.
Next day, Solomon meets up with the angel of death, sees them and the angel of death is in a terrific mood, couldn’t be more jubilant. Solomon says, ‘Hey I see that you look much happier today’. Angel of death says, ‘Yeah, I sure am Solomon, thank you so much. You know, yesterday I was so troubled, I was thinking I have these orders to get your two secretaries but the problem was, I was only allowed to kill them at the gates of Luz. Thank you so much for sending them there’.
Okay, that is story one. In that story, human beings really do not have that much power against the angel of death. I mean even Solomon, the wisest of all men really can’t outsmart the angel of death. But now, listen to story two.
This week’s Parsha tells us the story of Korach’s rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. Over the course of the parsha Korach and his followers are killed. The earth miraculously swallows them up and then the next day comes along and shockingly the rest of the nation accuses Moses of illegitimately engineering the death of Korach and his followers. Now at this point this is basically the last straw as far as God is concerned. God tells Moses and Aaron, hiromu mitoch haedah hazot, lift yourselves up from this congregation, v’achaleh otam keraga, and I will destroy them in an instant.
Next thing that happens is that, Moshe and Aaron fall upon their faces and then Moshe intuits that a plague has began to radiate out into the Jewish people and the lives of the people as a whole are at risk. Moshe dispatches his brother Aaron, tells him to take the incense that he would normally offer in the Mishkan and to go out and try to stop the plague. Aaron runs out and stands between the dead and the living with the incense and somehow miraculously the plague stops and here we come to the very fascinating story that the sages tell us about the angel of death because the sages wonder, how did Aaron stop the plague and here is the story they tell, quoted by Rashi. Rashi points out that just after Aaron stands between the living and the dead, there’s a verse that says, that Aaron returned back to Moshe. Why did the verse have to tell us that Aaron returned back to Moshe after stopping the plague? Here’s the story they tell. Rashi says, do you know what Aaron did? Achaz et hamalach, he literally grabbed hold of the angel of death and physically restrained him. The angel of death turns around and literally says ‘who do you think you are? You can’t do this.’ Amar lo hamalach hanach li laasot shlichuti,let me do what I’m supposed to do. Amar lo, Aaron answered him, ‘Moshe commanded me to hold you back.’ Amar lo, the angel of death said, ‘that’s ridiculous. Ani shluchu shel makom, I’m the agent of God, you’re only the agent of human being, you’re the agent of Moshe. Why should I listen to you?’ Amar lo, Aaron said, ‘ein omer moshe klum melibo.’ Do you think Moshe’s talking on his own authority? Moshe doesn’t say anything mepi hagevorah, except on God’s authority. There’s an awkward silence. And then Aaron says, ‘Im ein atah maamin’ you don’t believe me? Hari Hakodosh Baruch Hu uMoshe al petach ohel Moed, right now Moshe’s standing and God’s right there along with him, right in front of the door to the tent of meeting. Bo imi, come back with me and shaal, ask him. Let’s clear this up right now.’ Vezehu shenomer, that’s why the verse right after says, v’yashav Aharon el Moshe, that Aaron retuned to Moshe. That’s why Aaron retuned to Moshe, he was dragging the angel of death with him. They were going to ask Moshe to God to clear up this misunderstanding.
It is a very humorous Midrash but it is also very strange Midrash especially in light of the other story that the sages tell us about Solomon’s interaction with the angel of death because if you remember going back to that story, it seemed like the moral was, people, even people as wise as Solomon cannot outsmart the angel of death but now, come to this story, the story of Aaron and the angel of death and it seems like it is exactly the opposite moral. Aaron’s playing games with the angel of death, he beats him in his own game; you can beat the angel of death.
So, which is it?
So I like to suggest a possible way of reconciling these two very interesting stories. Maybe they don’t contradict each other, here’s why.
Let’s go back to the verse in this week’s Parsha that describes the onset of the plague. Vaydaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, God says to Moshe, hiromu mitoch haedah hazot, lift yourselves up from among this congregation, v’achaleh otam keraga, and I will destroy them within an instant.
Now, what’s the next thing that happens? Aaron and Moshe fall on their faces, isn’t that interesting? God said, lift yourselves up and they cast themselves down. I want to suggest that their casting themselves down is a metaphor of sorts for everything that happens after this. It’s not just they were anguished and they fell on their faces because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. It’s not a coincidence that God said, go up and they went down. They were doing the opposite of what God said and everything that happens after this is the opposite of what God said. God started the plague, God was going to destroy them all and human beings have the gal to say, we are going to stop the plague. How could they stop a plague if God was behind it? Unless, God allowed for the possibility of the plague to be stopped. God didn’t just say there’s going to be a plague, it is all going to be over. He said, lift yourselves up and there will be a plague and that implies something. What if you don’t lift yourselves up? What then? There was a similar implication one another time. God was thinking of destroying the Jewish people back in the story of the egal, the golden calf, God had said to Moshe, hanichali, leave me alone, vayichar afihem, my anger will flair against them and Moshe, as Rashi points out there, didn’t leave God alone. He understood, leave me alone and I will destroy them but if I don’t leave you alone? Then maybe you won’t destroy them. Something like that seems to be going on here as well. Lift yourselves up and I will destroy them. So I will cast myself down then. Moshe understands, there is an implication here. You don’t have to go along with me, God is saying. God is inviting Moshe not to go along with him. To seek out another way, there is an overt message that God is giving Moshe but there is a covert message too and Moshe and Aaron listen not just to the overt message but to the covert message. Those covert message is actually something that only we, human beings hear. The angel of death is convinced that he has got it all figured out, God wants the plague. It is human beings who can discern the more subtle covert messages, why? Because an angel, when it gets right down to it, is just a messenger. In fact, the word angel in Hebrew, malach, just means messenger. That’s all an angel is. So when God issues an overt to create, that’s the decree. They are messengers, that go out and does the decree. It takes a human being with his own senses and self to create this creativity with his free will, to use that sense of pluck that he has, it is actually to challenge the divine, only to realize that that challenge was something that in fact God wanted from him, was actually an implication of God’s words. Raise yourselves up, leaves for a possibility. A possibility that if you cast yourselves down, you can get me to change my mind.
In the end, these two stories about the angel of death tell you that you cannot outsmart God but you can confront him. When it comes to death, you can do an end run around the angel of death sending your two secretaries on the fastest horses to somehow outsmart the angel of death. Things don’t work that way but sometimes God’s will as it were, can be changed by human appeal. Indeed God himself allows for that, creating implications within his words, that I am going to this direction but I can be persuaded otherwise and perhaps, that is the key to the possibility of human prayer.
We learn something about our own ability to pray by these stories because what are we doing when we pray? How do we confront that great theological challenge that if God wants to do this, how can I ever convince him otherwise? But God likes being convinced. He gives humans the sense that sometimes he can be convinced and so we make that case to God too. We are not looking to outsmart you God, we are making a straight forward, direct appeal. Aaron and Moshe acted heroically when they made a last appeal to life and we too, sometimes in our prayers make a last ditch appeal for life and for other things that we seek. Those appeals have a chance. It is possible to drag the angel of death back to God for at least one more hearing before the heavenly crown. A hearing that human beings do have a shot every once in a while of actually winning.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
13. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
19. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
20. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
21. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
22. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
23. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
24. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
25. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
26. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
27. Metzora: Living Within the Community
28. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
29. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
30. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
31. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
32. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
33. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
34. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
35. Korach: Can We Influence God?
36. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
37. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
38. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
39. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
40. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
41. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
42. Va'etchanan: Seeing Layers in the Ten Commandments
43. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
44. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
45. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
46. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
47. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
48. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
49. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
50. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
51. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
52. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
53. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
54. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
55. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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