Pope Francis made news last week when it was reported that he called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace.” After some back and forth, including claims that the Pope had been mistranslated, the Vatican clarified that the Pope meant no offense to Israel and that the phrase he had used was more like “A little bit an angel of peace.” The whole incident plays on important questions about Abbas’s background and record as well as the role the Vatican should play among other governments that recognize a Palestinian state. However, what struck me was the choice of the word angel and the meaning of inserting this language, even if just a “bit”, into the political conversation about peace.
While the word angel almost always conjures up images of winged beings, luminescent in purity perhaps accompanied by a harp, the word itself in Italian, as well as in both English and the Hebrew equivalent means messenger. According to the most basic definition, an angel, for anyone, would require being nothing but a carrier of the will of G*d with no backstory or baggage, no personal agenda, no identity whatsoever. Obviously neither Mahmoud Abbas or any other human being could be one. The question is should we want to be one?
This Saturday night begins the celebration of Shavuot the occasion of Moses’ receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. While the biblical account focuses on the awesome and terrifying experience of the Israelites camped beneath the mountain, an incredible Rabbinic story depicts what it was like for Moses as he ascended to the heights to take possession of this precious gift. The angels were there. However, instead of a fanfare of angels greeting the beloved prophet, Moses found himself in the middle of a bitter dispute. “Why,” the angels demanded of G*d “would you allow this greatest jewel, the Torah, which was your blueprint for creating the universe, to be placed in the hands of a human being, flesh and blood, rather than in the hands of your most trusted eternal servants, the angels?” So much for perfect obedience! But G*d decided they should be answered and, perhaps with a smile, turned to Moses and said “Well?” Moses answer went to the heart of the matter: “What does it say in this Torah?” He quoted from the Ten commandments “I am G*d who took you out of bondage in the land of Egypt” Were you angels ever slaves? Thou shalt not murder, steal, commit adultery… Do you angels have such passions and temptations that you would do any of these things?” The angels were quick to acknowledge the truth of Moses’ point and the appropriateness that the Torah would be given to those flawed and fragile human beings who needed it so much more than they. Of course, no one mentioned that part about coveting one’s neighbor.
This story teaches us a paradox: the Torah is most suited to those who might be thought unworthy of receiving it. The angels, who even in their moment of defiance held themselves to be above imperfection, had no use for it. Of course, we’re no angels. We receive the Torah knowing we stand as imperfect beings and appreciate the gift of Torah even more because of the profound way it speaks to us in the midst of our very human frailties.
And just as when we come to celebrate the Torah we do not look for perfection, so too will the waging of peace require not “angelos della pace”, angels of peace, even just a little. The world is not at peace and so each of us struggles not to be perfect messengers of peace, but authentic pursuers of peace. Not the Malachei hashalom that we pray will grace our table when we sing Shalom Aleichem, but Rodfei Hashalom, the pursuers of peace that we are told in the Psalms each of us should strive to be.