On Tuesday evening I was blessed with the opportunity to lead our evening meditation at Beyond Walls. I had planned to sing two prayers, with some silent meditation in between, and that's exactly what I did -- first the ma'ariv aravim prayer which blesses God Who brings on the evening, and then the hashkivenu prayer which asks God to spread over us a shelter of peace as we head toward bed. But as I was finishing that second prayer I realized that there was something else I wanted to sing, something I sing to our son nightly: the invocation of the four angels who watch over us as we sleep.
The invocation of the angels is part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. I grew up reciting the simple one-line shema at bedtime, but didn't learn about the other parts of the traditional liturgy until adulthood. One piece of that liturgy is a beautiful prayer of forgiveness (both seeking it, and granting it) which I have written about before. (See The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.) Another piece is birkat ha-mapil, which asks God to protect the sleeper to lie down in peace and rise up in peace in the morning. And a third piece is an invocation of a quartet of angels.
Here are the words to that invocation, as I learned it at Elat Chayyim many years ago:
בשם ה' אלוהי ישראל
ועל ראשי ומעל תחתי שכינת אל
B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
Milfanai Uriel, u-me'acharai Raphael
V'al roshi, u-m'al tachtai, Shechinat-El
In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all above, surrounding me, Shechinat-El.
Sometimes this is called "the angel song." It invokes the presence of four angels. On the right is Michael, which in Hebrew means "Who is Like You, God?" -- in simple words, Wonder. On the left is Gavriel, which means "God's Strength" -- in simple words, Strength. In front is Uriel, which means "God's Light" -- simply, Light. Behind is Raphael, "God's Healing" -- simply, Comfort. And above us, and surrounding us, every present with us, is the Shechinah, the immanent divine Presence. (The idea of naming each angel with a one-word quality comes from the children's book The Bedtime Sh'ma.)
If you can't see the embedded video, above, it's here on YouTube.
The melody I used at Beyond Walls was one by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l, and it's the one I most often sing to our son at bedtime. (Though when I was at Getting It... Together a few weekends ago, I learned a beautiful new melody for these words, written by Shir Yaakov.) I love this little prayer. I love the idea of invoking these four angelic presences to watch over us while we sleep. I love the fact that in our tradition there is an angel of Wonder, an angel of Strength, an angel of Light, an angel of Healing. And I love the use of this lullaby to gentle the transition out of waking and toward dreams.
The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning. For me, invoking the presence of these four angels is a bolster against anxiety and a comfort. I'm grateful that I was able to share this practice with this community.
Calling all angels, 2010