The Angel and the Shepherd

The angel was in a hurry. This was a complicated operation, more complicated than this malakh, this messenger, had ever undertaken. There was a matter of getting the time and place right, assuming a suitable form, giving the right push to circumstance.

Zagnugael had been in training for this mission for a long time, and was just one of many messengers slated to participate in the campaign. Even the Archangel Gabriel, back when Moshe was a tiny child, had performed a vital and well-timed intervention that was, in certain spheres, already the stuff of legend. Pharaoh had adored his daughter's foster child. But after the toddler snatched Pharaoh's crown off his head and placed it on his own, the king began to worry that this might be less playful than prophetic. He tested the child by placing him in front of two bowls - one with a gleaming pyramid of gems, in the other a heap of hot coals - to see what the child was made of. Moshe, always drawn to light, reached for the sparkling jewels, but the Archangel pushed his hand decisively to the burning coals. The results of that operation were mixed. The child was saved from Pharaoh's suspicion. But the burning hand shoved into the screaming mouth scalded Moshe's tongue and marred his speech and his self-confidence for life. Accommodations could, and would, be made. It was just a matter of planning.

Other angels also were involved in the project, waiting in the wings, as it were. Samael, Angel of Death, was at the ready, eyeing the doorposts of Egypt, in case things got dicey. Two gleaming cherubim primped, knowing they would be the models for gold statues for the tabernacle - if the campaign was successful, that is. And another angel, well not quite an angel but an angelic form, a sort of a fiery, smoky cloak, was awaiting the Creator's own use in leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt.

Zagnugael was not such a high up in the celestial hierarchy. A functionary at best. There were others cleverer, fleeter, mightier. But here the angel was anyway, with this key assignment. Zagnugael, without form, hovered at a distance and observed the white-haired shepherd on the Midianite mountainside. Moshe was 80 years old now, a youthful 80. He had favorable genes for long life - patriarchs who lived well into their hundreds; a matriarch who birthed a baby in her 90s. If all went to plan, Moshe had years of pleasant retirement ahead. Because truthfully, how long could it take to get from Egypt to the Promised Land? A year at worst.

Moshe had not had an easy life. A displaced person since birth, homeless in a way. But 40 years of tending flocks seemed to have grounded him, softened him, so the angel thought. Maybe this made him right for the job. Maybe it didn't. Nonetheless, he was a prince and a shepherd, and his birth had been miraculous. There was no better recipe for a hero.

Now, to get his attention. This was the assignment. At just the right moment, to draw Moshe's gaze and then give way to a message, like a switchboard operator placing an important transatlantic call. The call was scheduled and confirmed. Zagnugael just needed to make sure Moshe picked up on the other end.

The angel had given long thought to this, and had chosen to assume the form of Moshe's father, Amram. Moshe had not seen his father since he was placed in a basket and launched into the Nile as an infant. Still, Amram's face sometimes came to Moshe in his dreams, and Zagnugael hoped the choice would prove both comforting and strategic, capitalizing on Moshe's love and loss and longing.

It was time. Zagnugael quickly identified the right kid in the flock, the runt, the jumpy one. The angel hovered close and contracted, condensing into something not quite physical but not purely ethereal either. Poised just in front of the kid's eyes, Zagnugael burst forth in a sudden flash of light, just a firecracker's worth. The kid bleated in fear and took off. Moshe was on his feet instantly, chasing the spooked animal through the thorny scrub bushes, cursing under his breath only after many spikes began to draw blood.

This was Zagnugael's cue to relocate and take on the familiar, unfamiliar shape of Moshe's father. The angel placed itself dead in the path of both goat and man, and began its difficult process of thickening, of cohering. But something was wrong. As if the human form were locked against the angel. Zagnugael was repelled back from the effort, like a ball bouncing off brick. This made no sense. The training exercises had gone off without a hitch.

Moshe, in hot pursuit of the baby goat, splashed right through the puddle of predicament that was the angel Zagnugael. And in that moment, the messenger perceived Moshe's thoughts. The blood from the thorns was reviving in Moshe the memory of a Hebrew slave being beaten with a switch 40 years earlier. And this was followed by another memory - Moshe's response. The memory of killing the Egyptian taskmaster.

In a flash Zagnugael understood the impediment. On the day he'd killed the taskmaster, Moshe had not simply jumped in as an animal reflex. He had first looked right and left. To any observer it would have seemed that Moshe was looking for help. But Moshe, in his heart, was uncertain. Had he been looking for help or making sure he wouldn't get caught? This doubt gnawed at him ever since. And his long days alone with the goats in this rugged country were a kind of penance.

Moshe had saved a human life, but he had taken one too, brutally, perhaps unnecessarily, and in doing so he had closed his heart to the divine inside even the cruelest person. Moshe had forfeited the ability ever to see the Divine made manifest in human form. And so the angel Zagnugael was locked out without a Plan B.

By now the baby goat had come to a halt at a distance, and Moshe was scooping it up in his arms and turning back to the flock. Timing was critical. It had to act now. But how?

Desperate, Zagnugael stopped trying, and relaxed. It melted into its truest form: pure light. It took a position amid the thorn bushes and blazed like fire. Divine light poured through it as through a glass, light from another world, light of the "let there be light" sort. It would have consumed any other human witness. But Moshe's head snapped to attention. He saw the light, how it shone out of the bushes without coming from them, how it blazed without producing even a wisp of smoke. He set the kid on the path back to its mother and approached the dazzling messenger, his hand shielding his eyes. Zagnugael tried to summon a voice, and Amram's was still there. "Moshe," the messenger whispered in the voice of his father. "Hineini," Moshe replied. "Here I am."

Success. Contact had been made. Zagnugael opened up now, the messenger's light becoming a carrier wave for something else, a bigger consciousness that flowed through, pouring out words. Holy ground. Shoes. God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Trouble. Affliction. Pharaoh. Promised Land. Milk and honey. A holy task. A heavy burden.

At last Moshe was released from this bombardment, his face now hidden in his trembling hands. He raised his head and asked the question that nearly every mortal asked every angel, the question they were not permitted to answer. "What is your name," Moshe asked, "in case the people should want to know?" Zagnugael wanted to answer, but held back. Suddenly words burst forth. "Ehyeh asher ehyeh." I am what I am.

God had answered Moshe with something that was both an evasion and the fullest possible answer that could ever be mustered. Because how could God ever be confined to words? The angels spent their whole existences extolling God's holiness and even that wasn't enough.

Moshe, barefoot and off balance, backed away. Zagnugael could hear Moshe's heart and sense the surprise and burden and loneliness in it. Zagnugael was filled with pity. And as God's voice receded, the angel daringly added words of its own, in the slightest whisper: "I will stay with you, Moshe. I will be at your back in your hardest moments. I will teach you in your dreams, and you will teach all the generations to come. I will speak God's name to you, so it will come easily to your lips. And when the end comes, I will hold you as your soul departs." And with that, the light sputtered out, and Moshe, sandals in hand, was left looking at a thorn bush in the twilight.

The mission of a year took forty. Zagnugael stayed near Moshe, their fates now intertwined. Moshe and God now spoke directly; and the messenger was left without portfolio. Zagnugael spent long desert days speculating about its own nature and purpose. Had it made its own decisions, or had it just been a kind of frock God was wearing? And for that matter, wasn't Moshe God's frock as well? And the Israelites? And even the Egyptians?

At long last Moshe, now 120 years old and worn by so many trials, stands on Mt. Nevo staring across the Jordan River into the Promised Land that he will not be permitted to enter. Oh, the outrage! A life sacrificed and the reward withheld! But when Moshe sees the warm light of tonight's setting sun, he suddenly remembers an evening when he had seen a thorn bush ablaze.

Zagnugael takes this as a hello. The angel whispers, in Amram's voice, "Moshe." Moshe chuckles and, without even turning around, replies, "Hineini. Here I am."

Moshe lies back now, and Zagnugael takes a place of honor at his feet - the feet that had stood barefoot on holy ground so many years ago. And now, look! In come the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, flanking Moshe on either side. And here comes God's holy presence above. God speaks now, not to Moshe the man, but directly to his eternal and stubborn soul. God says, "My daughter, 120 years are enough in this form. I will bring you to the highest heaven and you will live with the keruvim and seraphim and many bands of angels."

Silence. God dispenses with words and kisses Moshe on the lips, drawing forth his soul. And she emerges, blinking and stretching her incorporeal limbs, brilliant as the angel. She looks right and left, then directly at Zagnugael, now blazing like the sun. "Ah, you," she says. "Somewhere I seem to have misplaced a kid."


This fantasy draws from many midrashim from the tradition. Exodus Rabbah 1:26 gives over the famous story of baby Moshe and the hot coals. In Exodus Rabbah 3:1 we learn that the voice from the bush was Amram's voice. Moshe asked, "What does my father demand?" God replied, "I am not your father, but your father's God." It was 16th century Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz commenting on Exodus 3:2, who imagined that the light of the fire was glowing from another world. It didn't consume the bush because it didn't inhabit the same physical space. Exodus Rabbah 2:5 relates a rabbinic dispute as to whether the angel of the bush was Michael or Gabriel. But the Targum Yonatan, translating Exodus 3:2 into Aramaic, unhesitatingly - and mysteriously - calls the angel Zagnugael. It made sense to me dramatically that the angel of the bush should show up at Moshe's deathbed, and sure enough there it was. The only other mention of this angel in ancient sources is in the midrash of Moshe's death, in Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:11. There the angel is called Zagzag'el, suggesting the Hebrew root z-g-g, meaning "translucence". According to this midrash, Zagzag'el is the holy recorder and secretary on high, and also Moshe's teacher, instructing him in the Shem Hameforash - God's holy name. The passage goes on to describe Moshe's death, including the arrangement of the three angels, God's calling Moshe's soul "my daughter" (much as I wish I'd come up with that one), and God's extracting Moshe's soul with a kiss.
I am grateful to my wonderful teachers Rabbi Shohama Wiener and Rabbi David Evan Markus for giving me the opportunity to dive headlong into the angelic world.