By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Our parasha begins (Gen 18:1-2): “Hashem appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at the heat of the day. Looking up, he saw three people standing about him and seeing this, he ran from the tent’s entrance to greet them and bowed toward the ground.”
It is known in our tradition that these three ‘people’ were in fact three angels. However the word in Hebrew is anashim, which literally means people (or men). In a few weeks we will read about Joseph who was sent by his father to find his brothers in shechem. The Torah says “a man came upon [Joseph] wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’” and Joseph goes on to tell this Ish–this man, who then directs him toward Dothan where his brothers had gone. Here again, but in the singular, we see the word for a human man, but Rashi teaches us that this was the angel Gabriel.
In fact, according to Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, the angels who visited Avraham and Sarah “were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Michael had been assigned the task of announcing that Sarah would have a child and to save Lot. Both of these assignments were expressions of God’s love or mercy respectively, and could therefore be described as being of the same category. Raphael had the task of healing Avraham. Gabriel’s task was to turn Sodom upside down.”
These angels appear to our ancestors as regular human beings and there are two commonalities: 1) they have a specific task or message, and 2) their arrival appears to be serendipitous. As Lawrence Kushner wrote, “The Hebrew word for angel is malakh which also means “messenger,” one who is sent…Unsuspecting and unaware. Consumed by their own plans and itineraries. Busy at work on their own schemes…people chosen to be messengers of the Most High rarely even know that they are God’s messengers…I do not know how many times in one’s life one is also a messenger. But for everyone it is at least once.”
When we read parshat Vayera we are reminded that an angel may indeed come in the form of a regular person. Kushner’s words, which can be found in Siddur Lev Shalem (p.153), echo a spiritual sentiment I’ve held for many years. In our lives, we never know when we might be the person in the right place, at the right time with the right message for our loved one, our friend or even a stranger. I can recall moments when I’m certain I’ve encountered such angels in my own life. Perhaps these were just unlikely but pleasant coincidences, but I look to Maimonides for a little assurance. In his Guide for the Perplexed he wrote, “Before the angels have accomplished their task, they are called men (human), when they have accomplished it they are angels.” Perhaps it is on us to develop our dispositions toward kindness, open our hearts and minds to the beautiful mystery of random chance, and treat everyone as though they might be an angel, or in need of an angel. We might visit the sick like Raphael, we might bring good news and hope like Michael, or we might help someone find their way like Gabriel in the Joseph story. Imagine greeting everyone we met with that same rush to embody Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. The world would be a much more angelic place.