Then came the angel of death
And slew the slaughterer
Who killed the ox
That drank the water
That quenched the fire
That burned the stick
That beat the dog
That bit the cat
That ate the kid
My father bought for two zuzim.
So goes the second-to-last verse of the Passover seder song, Had Gadya, sung to a merry little tune that belies the violent content. Why this song is sung at Passover is the subject of varying interpretations, but one connection seems clear: malakh ha-mavet, the angel of death. After all wasn’t it the angel of death that slew the first-born of Egypt? Actually, it was not. The Haggaddah, expanding on a verse from the Exodus narrative, says: “I [God] will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, I and not an angel; I will smite all the first born in the land of Egypt, I and not a seraph; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgement, I, and not a messenger.” The book of Exodus identifies the force that kills the Egyptian first-born as the mashchit, (Exodus 12:13, 23), translated variously as Destroyer (JPS), or bringer-of-ruin (Fox). Most commentators agree that the mashchit of the Bible is not an independent force, but a personification of death that God unleashes on the world. However, starting with an early appearance in the biblical book of Proverbs (16:14), malakh ha-mavet becomes, by the time of the Talmud, a fully-developed and partially independent character.
I was recently teaching a Bible class on the subject of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. When I began discussing the role of the angel who intervenes to stay Abraham’s hand as he is about to slaughter his son, I mentioned that the Hebrew word for angel is malakh. One of the students said, Yes, like malakh ha-mavet, the angel of death. At first, I was puzzled that someone’s first association with the word malakh would be so somber. I then realized that in Jewish folklore, the angel of death is the best known of the angels (see Dov Noy’s excellent article on the subject inEncyclopedia Judaica). Also, I suspect that many Jews think that any other kind of angel is a Christian angel – a cherubic-faced, golden-haired, winged creature found on Christmas cards.
Although in Jewish legend, we describe certain angels as exercising independent will, basically an angel is nothing more than a messenger of God – a shaliah, one who is sent. This week’s parashahas as its most gripping moment the tenth plague of Egypt, the killing of the first born. God’s message and messenger is death. It is perhaps because the Passover celebration is so central to Judaism that we focus on this aspect of God’s use of a messenger. Yet we need only return to another key episode of the Bible, the akedah, to see God’s message in a different way. The angel who interrupts Abraham does so not to end Isaac’s life, but to save it. Indeed, some commentaries identify this angel with the angel who announced the birth of Isaac, saying to Abraham, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). The Hebrew here does not say, however, “next year,” rather, it says, “ka-eit haya,” literally, at a living season. The angel who brought God’s word of new life to a childless couple was the angel of the living season, the angel of life. The angel of death is usually depicted holding a sword; the angel at the akedah holds back Abraham’s sword.
A common expression about people and angels is that people are not angels. We use this phrase to express our understanding that people aren’t always good. The phrase is correct, but its understood meaning is wrong: Angels are no more good or bad than a messenger is good or bad. An angel has no more free will than a fax machine. Human beings, since the end of the age of prophecy, carry no direct messages from God. Our job is to develop a message and a sense of mission – shlihut. On one level, our task is clear: The mission of the Jewish people is to carry the message of Torah and mitzvot. Yet Jews are not only a nation but also a collection of individuals, and each Jew has the potential of developing his or her own shlihut. This task is harder than keeping any of the ritual or ethical laws of Judaism. It requires discerning, based on scant information, what it is that God wants us to do with our lives.
Each person has a different shlihut. No two life-missions are exactly alike. Yet the mission of each Jew is a search — a search not to be an angel of life, for that we cannot be — but to be a messenger of life. That means we must add and inject life into every action we do, always stepping up the power and value of our own lives and the lives of others. The last verse of Had Gadya says that God slays the angel of death. A human being who carries God’s message of life helps in that task.
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer