Think about the last time you encountered an angel.
Now, I don't mean the shimmering kind with halo and wings. Nor do I mean to join the host of New Age voices cataloguing the presence of angelic figures anywhere and everywhere. But think about a time when you encountered a figure whose presence in your life was so perfectly timed, so completely matched to your need at that moment and so absolutely right for guiding you to where you needed to go that its presence could only be called divine.
Who or what was it? And more importantly, how did you respond?
I remember distinctly the first time someone called me an angel and meant it. It was during my first hospital chaplaincy job many years ago. The slight, lonely old woman was a little crazy, so it made me smile when she went on and on about how God had sent me to her room at just the moment she needed me.
It seemed quaint, how fervently she regarded my presence as angelic. Though I tried to be kind, I didn't really know how to understand her, except with skepticism and thinly veiled judgment.
I have since learned more about the presence of real-life angels. I will never forget the casual friend who spoke to me the week before I moved to California. At the time, I was terrified because I knew this move would change my life profoundly. Suddenly speaking with the power and wisdom of a prophet, so that I knew her words in that moment came from God, she told me someone was waiting for me in California, in my new home.
Her prophecy gave me enormous comfort and guidance as I went on my way.
The women friends who brought me through dark times in my life, the clients and students who showered me with kindness, my daughter, who brings unspeakable joy and wonder — all of these and more are as real and blessed figures as the kind who have haloes and robes. And my husband, a source of astounding blessing, is a presence in my life fully as powerful and wondrous as the biblical encounters with divine beings.
These relationships have taught me to respect, even to expect, the presence of divinely inspired figures in my life. I now know they are there. The question is: How should I respond? With cynicism? Ridicule? Denial? Or with respect, genuine curiosity, honest struggle?
This week's parashah, Hukkath-Balak, includes the dramatic and evocative tale of one man's encounter with an angel, and his not-so-laudable response. Then again, one can forgive Bil'am's negative response to the angel in his life.
One can forgive because this is not the sort of angel we would expect to see — not in biblical or cinematic images, much less in our own lives — because this angel comes dressed in hostile garb.
Bil'am, the prophet, has been struggling to choose between his commission from King Balak of Moab to curse the people of Israel and God's clear command to bless this same people. Bil'am hears God's word clearly but is afraid to listen. Wavering, he agrees to physically take the journey Balak has commanded, unsure whether he will in the end utter words of blessing, as God insists, or whether he will curse, as the human king has commanded.
Oddly enough, it is just at this moment of uncertainty that the angel of God arrives and presents himself to Bil'am, albeit in peculiarly nonangelic form.
"When he arose in the morning, Bil'am saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand" (Numbers 22:21-23).
What a peculiar picture: an angel of God with a drawn sword in hand. As the story unfolds, we see that the she-ass somehow realized this hostile creature standing before him was an angel in disguise. Bil'am tried first to ignore the angel, to bypass him and to subdue him with violence. But the angel would not go away.
Finally, Bil'am recognized the hostile figure for who he was, a messenger of God.
I believe that essential to the story of Balak is this teaching: Even the apparently hostile, strange and threatening figure may be a messenger from God, whom we ignore at our own spiritual peril.
Is there any way — not in Pollyanna-ish denial but in spiritual maturity — to recognize the God-given qualities of the so-called "foes" in our midst? These might include the boss or workmate who is a source of pain and indignity, the family member who returns us to the very worst of our childhood vulnerability, the friend who betrays us, the lover who abandons us, leaving us exposed, ashamed and alone.
The key, of course, is in our ability to see. Trapped in his own fear-driven disobedience of God's orders, Bil'am could not at first see beyond his own beast of burden. Yet Bil'am finally came to recognize the roadblock as a friend, the obstacle as a guide, the threatening figure as an angel sent to show him the path he was supposed to walk.
May we recognize the angels in our path. And may we hear their messages for us.