Our tradition suggests that each of us has an angel that acts as personal bodyguard, representative and aide de camp. Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz suggests that everyone has an internal divine light, and when two people meet, these lights flare up and combine and give birth to an angel that is the embodiment of that friendship. And by extension, every community of people coming together with purpose would have an angel. There would be an angel of the Ner Shalom regulars. An angel of the Sebastopol Love Choir. An angel of Indivisible Petaluma.
And on up, through our levels of social organization and heart connection, up to the angels of nations, of peoples. And so we learn from Midrash*1* about the angel of Israel in contest with the angel of Egypt on the eve of the Exodus. Or, as Reb Zalman suggested to the Dalai Lama in their now-famous dialogue 25 years ago, that if they opened themselves up and got it right, the angel of Tibet would be speaking directly to the angel of the Jews.*2*
Today, the angels of the nations, of the nation states, are a little perturbed that perhaps the mightiest empire ever to have arisen on the planet is now planning to withdraw from a great covenant, from the Paris Climate Accords. There is a hubbub. A shifting of wings and a furrowing of brows. Not that all these angels have wings and brows; some look like trees and some like birds and some like waterfalls and some are shapeless and beyond description. But a general restless furrowing is present for all of them, as they gather in concern somewhere over the City of Love.
The Angel of America, though, holds its non-corporeal hands out in a gesture of petition, asking its counterparts for patience. The Angel of America senses the internal conflict of the people whose spirits comprise it. And it waits to see what is happening inside. In the midst of the churning of its metaphysical gut, it also feels an excitement. It senses from somewhere inside a mood of belt-tightening combined with a growing sense of purpose and readiness.
This combination of belt-tightening and readiness is not unfamiliar in the angelic world. The Angel of America dispatches an emissary to investigate this sensation.
Our emissary, an angel whose name is unpronounceable to human lips, or whose name constantly changes, or is too wondrous to say, or whose name is simply "Wondrous", recalls a time long ago, during another international struggle, when it observed this combination of restraint and resolve. It was when the Kingdom of Israel was in a long, long struggle with the Philistines, and had been under occupation for 40 years. Our angel had had the task of bringing a nazirite into the world. Ah wait – pause. You might ask, what's a nazirite?
Fortuitously, our Torah portion this week, Naso, tells us about the nazirites, a caste of people – both men and women, says Torah – who set themselves apart for some special purpose.*3* These n'zirim take a vow, not for life but for a set period of time. During that period, they abstain from drinking wine or eating anything made of grapes, which are in our imagination always associated with wine and wine's intoxicating properties. And during the term of the vow, they do not cut their hair and they do not go near the dead, even if it is a beloved.
At the end of the term, nazirites would be released from their vow by bringing a male lamb and a female lamb to the temple for sacrifice, along with unleavened cakes and matzah spread with oil. And while the priest would offer these sacrifices, the nazirite's head would be shaved, and their long hair burned in the fire.
Our unnameable angel is thinking about one specific nazirite, whose birth it had been tasked with prophesying.*4* The angel had made a visit to an Israelite woman in a place called Tzor'ah who, as these stories typically go, had been unable to conceive. The angel told her that she would give birth, and that she must not drink wine during her pregnancy, and that when the baby was born she should not put a razor to its head, but instead to let its hair grow. For the child was to be a nazirite, and this child would deliver Israel from the Philistines.
The angel remembers with a smile how this woman and her husband tried hard to offer it a meal and how it had to explain that it would not, could not, eat their food; but that they should instead make an offering of it to God. And they did this. The angel remembers the comical looks on their faces when it stepped right into the fire and lifted itself up to heaven. This unnameable, wondrous angel was not much for entrances, but it sure knew how to make an exit.
And who did the child grow up to be? None other than Samson. A great hero of Herculean strength and epic, tragic, quality, who was a great champion of the Israelites in their struggle.
Samson was not like the ascetics of other cultures. Cultures where people take monastic vows and then separate themselves from the world of action, becoming hermits. The nazirites of our tradition were able to be both ascetics and leaders, monks and champions. Like activist Catholic nuns. And like we see during this month of Ramadan, when Muslim tradition asks people not just to fast, not just to forgo, but also to go out and do the work of charity and justice.
The angel recalls this palate-pleasing pairing of asceticism and action and it smiles at noticing it taking root on earth and in America. The angel sees that the asceticism of this moment has less to do with wine than with oil. It sees people curbing their own carbon footprint. Not just individuals, but political entities and corporations which are, like angels, a kind of imperfect representation of the body politic.
The unnameable angel tugs on the robes of the Angel of America and draws its attention to the sudden flurry of activity across the country. Of mayors and governors saying they whatever the administration does, they will continue to reduce gas emissions. They will tighten their environmental belts and they will act heroically. Los Angeles. Salt Lake City. New York. Washington. California. All rising up like angels. And not just cities and states. Businesses. Makers of cars and computers and candy. Colleges too. All of these taking a vow to tighten their belts. And a promise to act heroically. The angel begins to count the uncountable individuals who are also committing to simpler lives, to less waste, and to continued resistance.
The unnameable angel smiles at this national mood. It gives a last look and then gives its offical report to the Angel of America, which is still holding its gesture of petition and patience toward the other angels, poised over Paris. They notice a change in the Angel of America, a renewed hopeful glow, and they look with curiosity. "But your leader––" they begin to inquire. The Angel interrupts. Like them, it responds, it is not the personal assistant of kings. But the embodiment – the enspiritment – of a whole mood and a whole movement and a holy moment. It laughs with unexpected delight, this Zeitgeist of America, as it searches for what to say next. It leans forward toward its fellows, with a reassuring countenance and great internal light. It clears its non-corporeal throat and, effecting its best Humphrey Bogart, says to them, "We'll always have Paris." Its fellows give a bit of an astral eyeroll, then sit back to wait and see.
*1*Midrash Avkir on Exodus 14:20.
*2*Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus (Harper 1994).