We live in trying times. For the first time in American history, the next generation is skeptical that their lives will be an improvement upon the foundation set by their parents and prior generations.
In trying times, to whom does God look? Who saves us in times of trouble? To whom should we look when faced with difficulty? Should God take on our travails alone, as a solo Redeemer? Should God enlist the help of angels? Should God call on us?
We live in trying times. For the first time in American history, the next generation is skeptical that their lives will be an improvement upon the foundation set by their parents and prior generations. We have heard increased cries for help — in our country, in Israel and throughout the world. Our Jewish institutions seek to provide services to ease our concerns about our communal well being. In the realm of culture, the past few decades have brought a number of popular songs (recorded by such artists as Jane Siberry and k.d. lang and Train) that make it clear we are “Calling All Angels.” But in truth, to whom should we turn with our hopes and expectations for improvement in troubling times? Opinion polls say that our faith in angels — and in our real-world leaders (and choices of leaders) — is faltering, at best.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, offers an answer to this important question of on whom we rely. In the parashah, we receive many of the civil laws that are to govern Israelite society, but in the midst of the list of laws, we read, “V’Anshei kodesh tih’yu li” — “You shall be holy people to Me.” (Shemot 22:30) The Kotzker Rebbe understood these words to indicate that we should strive to be holy — but in a way that is human. As human beings, we are subject to temptations and faults. The Kotzker Rebbe taught, “God already has enough angels.”
According to this interpretation — especially as we confront challenges — God does not want the simple perfection of the angels, because angels are beings with a single course of action and no choice in the matter. God has enough angels. God needs anshei kodesh – people, with all of our human flaws and tendencies and temptations, who will choose to improve our world. God needs human beings who are striving toward perfection, even with the full knowledge that we will never arrive at that far-off goal of flawlessness.
Especially in difficult times — when economic uncertainty, politically charged atmospheres, divisiveness and concern for Jewish solidarity and continuity may all erode our hope and self-confidence — God wants anshei kodesh. God seeks a relationship with people who will try to be better, try to do more — and try to help others do more.
Also, perhaps there is a reason why this statement appears in the midst of the first parashah that transitions from the narrative to the more legal (“mishpatim”) sections of Torah: For angels, the concept of mitzvah has little meaning. Angels do precisely as God bids them to do; they make no choices, and they have no independent agency. The entire notion of mitzvah relies upon the potential that we as human beings will not do what we are asked. Then, when we do fulfill God’s laws and expectations, when we, through our choices and actions, become holy humans — anshei kodesh — we will truly bring redemption to our troubled times. God is not “calling all angels”; rather, God is calling on each of us to help one another, to be mensches, and to strive to be just a little better in our (very imperfect, but very holy and very human) lives.
With this in mind, then, let us take advantage of this Shabbat to reflect upon the following questions:
1. Even though we are not perfect or all-powerful, what can we do to help ourselves and others face the challenges of these days?
2. Do we expect God (and the angels) to “save” us? On whom may we rely? Who relies on us? What can we do to help build a more perfect world for those close to us, for the Jewish People — and for the entirety of humankind?
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.