Reb Moishe was the richest man in the town, but he was also the meanest. When a beggar approached him and asked for a few pennies for food, Reb Moishe just grumbled and turned away. He turned away when the schoolmaster asked him to help the poor children of the town. He even refused the rabbi who asked him to help fix the roof of the shul. Reb Moishe turned away everyone who asked him for anything…They called him Reb Moishe the Miser.
So when Reb Moishe died, on a Sunday, no one came to the funeral. Only the rabbi and the cemetery staff went to bury Reb Moishe. No one cried for him. No one offered words of praise or comfort.
That’s when strange things started happening. The day after the funeral, the rabbi found a poor man waiting for him after minyan. “Rabbi, ten years ago, my wife got sick and I left my job to stay at home and care for her. When my savings ran out, I went to Reb Moishe the Miser to ask for help. He just groaned and turned away. But after that, every Monday morning I found an envelope filled with money on my doorstep—enough money to pay for food and medicine. Every Monday morning for the past ten years! But not this Monday. Rabbi, I wonder if you could help me.
The next day the school principal came to see the rabbi. “Rabbi, for the past twelve years, every Tuesday morning when I arrived at the schoolhouse, there would be a bag waiting for me. Every bag contained a surprise. Sometimes it contained a new coat for a child who needed one. Sometimes there was a new book for a child who loved to read. Rabbi, I don’t know who left that bag every Tuesday, but somehow that person knew exactly what I needed every week. But this morning—no bag and no surprise.”
On Wednesday it was a poor widow. And so it went all week, each day another person whose angel had suddenly disappeared. By the time Shabbat arrived, the rabbi had figured it out. He stood during the Shabbat prayers and announced that the entire community must accompany him to the cemetery at the end of Shabbat to offer an apology to Reb Moishe the Miser, who had been quietly caring for the sick, the hungry, the poor—for every needy person in the town—for all those years. He was not Reb Moishe the miser, after all. He was Reb Moishe the angel.
Angels are not just heavenly creatures with wings. The world is filled with angels, all kinds of angels. There’s Charlie’s angels, hell’s angels, a whole city of angels 350 miles south of here. Then there are God’s angels. Angels like Moishe the holy miser. Tonight I would like to speak with you about what it takes to become an angel. Well, to be one of Charlie’s angels you need a figure like Cameron Diaz. (I guess that role isn’t really for me!); to be a hell’s angel you need a nice bike; to be a Los Angeles angel you have to swing a bat pretty well or have a 100 mph fastball. But to become one of God’s angels, like Moishe, that is a whole different question.
Our tradition has a rich history of angelology beginning in the Bible itself. Abraham, Lot, and Jacob were all greeted by angels. Joshua was confronted by an angel wielding a sword near Jericho. Ezekiel and Isaiah both describe various kinds of angels in their depiction of heaven. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke with angels. And angels are said to accompany every Jew on Shabbat.
Adin Steinsaltz, in his master work on Jewish mysticism, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, writes extensively about angels like these, and other types of angels. He describes angels as a spiritual reality, incorporeal beings that inhabit all of creation. Steinsaltz explains that there are innumerable types of angels, but each angel is an integral, uni-dimensional being. In essence, every angel is created for one specific task. Each angel among the myriad levels and types of angels serves a singular, unified purpose.
In many ways, we are constantly seeking to become like the angels by elevating our level of being to a higher spiritual plane. For instance, each day when we recite the kedushah we are emulating the angels’ praise of God by reciting the verse from Isaiah (6:3) “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts. But our most successful attempt to attain angelic heights comes only tonight and tomorrow, on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we seek to bridge the gap that exists between us and the angels by ignoring our physical existence. We deny our bodies food, drink, anointment, comfortable leather shoes, sexual relations, and other corporeal pleasures. One this day we become something else, something other. We are no longer part of the world as we know it. It is as if we have slipped out of human life and into the realm of purely spiritual beings. Tonight, we are like the angels, or as close as human beings can come. When all physical needs are denied, we have a day to seek a singular purpose, just like angels. On this Day of Atonement, our monolithic drive is to elevate ourselves to a higher level of being through prayer, contemplation, and confession.
The inherent sanctity of this day and our mission on Yom Kippur to seek angelic status are only heightened by the knowledge that we cannot sustain our existence on this plane much beyond today. Our desires, impulses, and needs lead us to transgression. We sin in word, thought, and deed, for we are only human. But what if we could capture the essence of Yom Kippur and infuse each day with it? What if we sought to be more like the angels every day of our lives? What would we need to take with us from our Yom Kippur experience in order to do so? What can we learn from the angelic realm that might help us elevate human existence and our quality of life? In short, how can we be more like Moishe the miser or a woman named Clara Hammer?
30 years ago, Clara Hammer, a retired schoolteacher living in Jerusalem, noticed a young girl ahead of her in line at the butcher shop. The butcher was giving the young girl scraps and bones in a plastic bag. And after the girl left, Clara commented to the butcher how nice it was for him to give that girl scraps for her pets. The butcher replied that the scraps were not for cats and dogs—they were for her family. They had no money to buy meat but at least she could mix the scraps in with beans or in a soup for nourishment. Clara was horrified. She immediately ordered the butcher to give the girl two chickens a week, plus a pound of chopped meat and put it on her account. This was how the chicken lady of Jerusalem was born, how an angel was created. Clara had no budget for even these two additional chickens on her account, but she slowly spread the word of the need in her community and donations trickled in. At last count, in 2008, Clara was feeding 711 people a week, (close to 150 families) through the same butcher shop. Unfortunately, Clara passed away this March, weeks shy of her 100th birthday. After almost thirty years, there is one less angel in our world.
The element that united Clara and Reb Moishe with the angels was their dedication to a singular purpose. They identified something wrong in the world that they could fix. In his essay, Tikkun Olam: Repair of the World, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson writes, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.” Both Reb Moishe and Clara found the piece of creation left for them. They saw a problem and had the means and connections to mend a small part of our world. In other words, they found their mitzvah. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, when a Jew does a mitzvah he actually forms an angel that remains connected to that individual Jew. Every mitzvah, then, is not only an act of transformation in the physical world, it is also a spiritual act of creation. As Steinsaltz writes that “the person who performs a mitzvah…creates an angel. In a very real sense, we are all meant to be angels.
There is an angelic mission we must each pursue in the coming year, a mitzvah in the colloquial sense. A task that transcends the performance of ritual acts. There is a repair needed in our world that requires your spiritual transformation. God is waiting for you to find that role and make yourself an angel. We have the opportunity to become angelic when we seize the singularity of purpose we experience on Yom Kippur and carry it with us the days and months that follow. We can inhabit the realm of spiritual beings when we recognize our own uni-dimensional calling, the part of creation left for us to complete, your act of kindness that will change our world. We can emulate the angels and our best version of self which emerges on Yom Kippur by finding the one act of tikkun olam destined for us to fulfill.
Reb Moishe and Clara Hammer convey to us quite clearly that being an angel requires an intense amount of focus. As we seek to elevate ourselves to new heights tonight and tomorrow, we have an opportunity to contemplate how we can transfer some of our drive for singular purpose on Yom Kippur to the rest of our lives.
The downside to all of this is that I can’t tell you what your mitzvah is. I cannot know your angelic purpose. Nor can anyone else. Only God and you can know what your ultimate mission will be this year. For just as every angel has a different role, so too are we imbued with different strengths, varied pasts, and unique pathways to doing God’s work. Some of us are meant to give coats to schoolchildren or financial support to needy families like Reb Moishe. Others of us are meant to give chickens out on Shabbat like Clara. Perhaps your angelic purpose is to escort elderly community members across the Trader Joe’s parking lot or volunteer to teach preschoolers about Jewish values or the holidays. Perhaps your role for the coming year is to join hands with Noten Yad, or social justice initiative to make our community more accessible to all, or volunteer at a senior center. Perhaps your mitzvah this year is to learn how to read Torah or haftarah like so many here at Beth David have done over the years. Most likely, your mission, your angelic role for 5771 is something entirely different. Regardless of the conclusion you come to or the revelation God provides you, our tradition emphatically teaches that you have a mission to fulfill this year, an angel to create. You can bring a small piece of Yom Kippur into your daily life by devoting yourself to one act of tikkun olam this year. For the task of joining God in the process of creation requires an elevation of self. It requires angels.
One night, the sillouette of Reb Moishe appeared in his Rabbi’s bedroom. The Rabbi begged Reb Moishe’s forgiveness and was brave enough to ask Reb Moishe a question, “What is it like there, Reb Moishe, in heaven, with the angels.
“What is heaven like?” Reb Moishe replied, “It’s paradise! It’s almost perfect.”
“Almost perfect?” questioned the rabbi. “What’s missing from paradise?”
Reb Moishe said: “Here, inheaven, God’s angels care for every soul. So here there is no one for me to help. If only I could care for another soul—that would make it perfect!”
On this day of Yom Kippur as we elevate ourselves in prayer and confession to a higher level of purity, let us also consider how we will carry our experience of this day into the new year. Let us make a vow to ourselves that we will seek out our angelic mission, the souls we are supposed to care for, the act of tikkun olam destined for us. As Moses Maimonides wrote: an angel is someone entrusted with a mission (Guide 1190, 2:6). That someone is you.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah!