These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Learning from Angels

Posted on January 28, 2018 by Simon Montagu

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Dvar Torah in memory of Gwen Montagu

I’d like to thank Pardes for giving me the opportunity to give a Dvar Torah in memory of my mother Gwen Montagu, נעמי בת שרה, whose Yahrtzeit is this Thursday, the 9th of Shevat.

As my second semester studying here begins, I want to share some of my thoughts about learning Torah.

In the Gemara, R. Yoḥanan has this to say about Torah teachers: אם דומה הרב למלאך ה׳ יבקשו תורה מפיהו ואם לאו אל יבקשו תורה מפיו — “If the Rav is like an angel of God, seek Torah from his mouth, but if not, don’t seek Torah from his mouth”.

Talk about setting a high bar! Where am I going to find a teacher that lives up to that standard? If that is the requirement, how can I ever aspire to be a teacher myself? And what does it mean anyway? I don’t think I’ve ever met an angel, and I don’t know how I would recognize one if I did.

So I decided to go back to the sources and look at some people who did have encounters with angels. I picked three examples:

First, Jacob. On the way back from Laban’s house to Canaan, after moving all his family and possessions across the Jordan, he is left on his own, and then וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר — “A man struggled with him until dawn”. A violent physical struggle, which ended with his receiving a blessing, but left its mark on him, left him literally limping.

Second, Abraham. וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם. Sitting at the door of his tent he sees three people, and runs out to greet them. Avraham Avinu is Avraham Avinu, everything is an opportunity for ḥesed. He welcomes them into his home, feeds them, waits on them, and receives unexpected and unbelievable good news.

And thirdly Hagar, after she and Ishma’el are sent out into the wilderness. Their water has run out, and she thinks that this is the end. She gives up: she just sits down and waits to die, when suddenly an angel appears and brings her a message of hope. וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹדִים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם. God opens her eyes, and she sees something that was right in front of her all along, something she never noticed — a well of water.

Each of these encounters has its own individual character, but all three also have something in common: each one is a life-transforming experience.

For Hagar, obviously, it literally makes the difference between life and death.

Abraham was 99 years old. He had made it his life’s work to change the world, to bring it from empty materialism to an awareness of God. He had achieved many things, but by now he might have thought that his spiritual revolution was a one-generation thing that would die with him. And then he receives the news that he will have a son. His life is not a dead end. He has continuity, he has a future.

Jacob was a successful family man. He had wives, lots of children, and lots of sheep and cattle, but he was also full of unresolved conflicts. After his struggle with the angel, he moves up to a new level. He becomes almost a new person, with a new name: Israel, which has been our name ever since. He becomes a nation.

Perhaps when R. Yoḥanan says that a Torah teacher needs to be like an angel, he’s telling us something about the experience of studying Torah.

It can be a struggle. It can knock us back onto the ropes, and force us to question all our assumptions. But that doesn’t mean we need to concede our own individuality! Jacob doesn’t give up: he fights back, all night long until the break of dawn.

It can be an opportunity for ḥesed. An opportunity to share warmth and friendship in ḥevruta. An opportunity to pass on what we learn.

It can open our eyes. It shows me things right in front of me that I was unaware of. It reveals wells of water — resources and sources of strength within me that were always there, but which my eyes were closed to.

And above all, it can completely transform our life, at any time and at any age.

I’d like to share with you one memory of my mother: after my parents moved from London to Oxford, she started up women’s tefillot and women’s Torah readings for Simḥat Tora and benot mitzva in the Orthodox community there (this was in the 1980s, before it was cool). She led from the front: she found a teacher and learned to leyn herself — she was over 60 at the time — and she encouraged other women to learn and take part. She was never pushy, but she had the ability to give someone a few quiet words which were just the encouragement that they needed to move forward. She was also someone who delighted in other people’s achievements, and when she witnessed someone else’s success you could see her glow. Every time I walk into this Beit Midrash and see young people, and especially young women, learning Torah and committing themselves to contributing and leading the Jewish community, I feel that glow of hers living on in me.

I invite you to join me in dedicating part of our learning to her memory, לְעִלּוּי נִשְׁמַת נָעֳמִי בַּת שָׂרָה

Simon Montagu

Pardes Kollel Student 2017-18, January 22, 2018 ז׳ שבט תשע״ח