Selichot, Angels and Heschel

by Bob Schwartz

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

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