Jacob, on his deathbed, places his hands on his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. And he says:
The angel who rescued me from all harm -- bless these boys! May they carry on my name and thus name of my ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. May they spread far and wide upon the earth.
Jacob seems to be referring to a specific angel here. The only angel we know of, in his story, is the angel with whom he wrestled on the eve of reuniting with his brother. He wrestled with that angel until dawn and then said "I will not let you go until you bless me!" In return, the angel gave him a new name, Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God. That's who he's asking to bless his descendants: not a "guardian angel" as pop culture defines the term, but the angel who redeemed him with an all-night struggle.
As the children of Israel, we inherited his wrestle. We're Godwrestlers. We give ourselves to the holy work of wrestling with God, wrestling with Torah, wrestling with the world's imperfections. And that wrestling is itself a kind of redemption. It lifts us out of a state of passive receptivity. When we wrestle with God and with Torah and with injustice in the world, we are transformed.
Jacob's request for blessing has become part of the traditional liturgy for the Bedtime Shema.1 There's also another piece of that liturgy which mentions angels: a song where we ask four angels, Wonder, Strength, Light, and Comfort -- or using their Hebrew names, Michael (Who is Like God), Gavriel (God's Strength), Uriel (God's Light), and Raphael (God's Healing) -- to bless us as we sleep. I sing this to our son every night at bedtime.
Some of you may be thinking: wait a second. It's one thing to say that Jacob encountered an angel. But us? In modern life today? Asking angels for blessings?
Bear in mind that "angels," in our tradition, doesn't mean winged cherubs with haloes. In Jewish tradition, an angel is a messenger from God, doing God's work in the world.
The people we meet may serve as angels for us. There's a teaching in Jewish tradition which holds that every blade of grass has an angel which sits over it and whispers "Grow, grow!" If every blade of grass is cheered on by an angel, surely we are too. Maybe when we offer praise and encouragement to each other, we embody those angels. In the Angel Song I referenced earlier, qualities like Wonder and Strength are called angels. Maybe when we cultivate our own wonder, we connect up with the Angel of Wonder.
Returning to Jacob's prayer, "May the angel who rescued me from all harm bless these boys:" traditional Jews recite it every night, and I think we can learn something from its placement in the bedtime ritual. Here's how that ritual goes:
1) The first step in getting ready for sleep is forgiveness. The liturgy for Kriat Shema al-ha-Mitah begins "I forgive anyone who has hurt me, through deeds or actions, in this lifetime or any other." This way, if I die in my sleep tonight, I won't be carrying the karmic baggage of grudges.
2) Then there's a prayer blessing God Who brings us to sleep. We ask God to let our sleep be peaceful until we wake in the morning to gratitude again. We ask God to shelter us beneath a shelter of peace all night. Once we've cultivated forgiveness, we're ready to be peaceful.
3) Then we recite the words from this Torah portion, asking the angel who blessed Jacob to bless us.
4) The traditional liturgy ends with Adon Olam, which closes with the verse "Into Your hands I place my spirit, when I sleep and when I rise; and with my spirit, my body too; God is mine, I will not fear!"
When we've offered forgiveness, and acknowledged the Oneness at the heart of all things, then we become ready to ask our very struggles to bless us as we surrender to the night. And when we can experience our struggles as angels bearing blessings, then we can know ourselves to be in God's loving hands when we sleep and when we wake. Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so!
1.Maybe you didn't know there was a liturgy designed for reciting at bedtime. There is; it appears in most siddurim; you can find the Hebrew prayers here at Open Siddur, and here's a nice exploration of the bedtime shema liturgy and its themes.↩