The Angel and the World’s Dominion
Martin Buber & Vera Broekhuysen
The beginning of this story, attributed to Martin Buber, was given on December 4th, 2015 to I and my classmates in the Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counseling course, co-taught by Brita Gill-Austern and Rabbi Dan Judson, at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College, with the prompt to finish it ourselves. The first half of the story – up through footnote 1 – is Buber’s. The second half is mine.
There was a time when the Will of the Lord, Whose hand has the power to create and destroy all things, unleashed an endless torrent of pain and sickness over the earth. The air grew heavy with the moisture of tears, and a dim exhalation of sighs clouded it over. Even the legions that surround G-d’s throne were not immune to the hovering sadness. One angel, in fact, was so deeply moved by the sufferings he saw below, that his soul grew quite restless. When he lifted his voice in song with the others, a note of perplexity sounded among the strains of pure faith; his thoughts rebelled and contended with the Lord. He could no longer understand why death and deprivation need serve as connecting links in the great Chain of Events. Then one day he felt to his horror that the eye of All-Being was piercing his own eye and uncovering the confusion in his heart. Pulling himself together, he came before the Lord, but when he tried to talk, his throat dried up. Nevertheless, the Lord called him by name and gently touched his lips. The angel began to speak. He begged G-d to place the administration of the Earth in his hands for a year’s time, that he might lead it to an era of well-being. The angel bands trembled at this audacity. But at the same moment Heaven grew bright with the radiance of G-d’s smile. He looked at the supplicant with great love, as He announced His agreement. When the angel stood up again, he too was shining.
And so a year of joy and sweetness visited the Earth. The shining angel poured the great profusion of his merciful heart over the most anguished of her children, on those who were benumbed and terrified by want. The groans of the sick and dying were no longer heard in the land. The angel’s companion in the steely armor, who only a short time before had been rushing and roaring through the air, stepped aside now, waiting peevishly with lowered sword, relieved of his official duties. The earth floated through a fecund sky that left her with the burden of new vegetation. When summer was at its height, people moved singing through the full, yellow fields; never had such abundance existed in the memory. At harvest time, it seemed likely that the walls would burst or the roofs fly off, if they were going to find room to store their crops.
Proud and contented, the shining angel basked in his own glory. For by the time the first snow of winter covered the valleys, and dominion over the earth reverted into G-d’s hands, he had parceled out such an enormous bounty that the people of the earth would surely be enjoying his gifts for many years to come.
But one cold day, late in the year, a multitude of voices rose heavenwards in a great cry of anguish. Frightened by the sound, the angel journeyed down to the Earth and, dressed as a pilgrim, entered the first house along the way. The people there, having threshed the grain and ground it into flour, had then started baking bread – but, alas, when they took the bread out of the oven, it fell to pieces, and the pieces were unpalatable; they filled the mouth with a disgusting taste, like clay. And this was precisely what the Angel found in the second house and in the third and everywhere that he set foot. People were lying on the floor, tearing their hair and cursing the King of the World, who had deceived their miserable hearts with His false blessing.
The angel flew away and collapsed at his Master’s feet. “Lord,” he cried, “help me to understand where my power and judgment were lacking.” Then G-d raised his voice and spoke: Behold a truth which is known to me, and only to me from the beginning of time, a truth too deep and dreadful for your delicate, generous hands, my sweet apprentice – it is this, that the Earth must be nourished with putrefaction and covered with shadows that its seeds may bring forth – and it is this, that souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born.” 1
“But, Lord,” the angel cried, his voice breaking, “what of the people on this earth now – the ones who were given my grain, who baked the bread, who are starving and in want? They can’t know this truth, and you have only just given it to me. Do they need to die for my knowledge? If you had been in charge, they would have had grain and sorrow and gladness in their season. Please, I have learned my lesson. Return the health of the years to them! How will your Great Work go forward without people to do it?”
The angel sobbed in the shining lap of G-d. He felt that neither the world nor the heaven could contain his sorrow, and his shame.
Then he felt G-d’s hands in his hair, smoothing it back from his temples. G-d’s awesome finger raised his chin; he looked into the Divine eyes. The angel’s own tears dried up and he trembled, overwhelmed by the loss he saw there.
“Angel,” said G-d’s voice, slow and implacable, “what is done cannot be undone. This life has its own momentum, and carries in it, breaks and diminishments. My work is just that: to let it proceed and to allow, and nurture, all that comes of it. All. You and all the holy hosts; humans and their frail, their young, their sturdy and their wise, your tears and joys and lives and deaths, are all part of its pattern. If I reverse the pattern, if I undo, the nature of what is breaks. The aim of my work is for you to be, and to learn. Who can learn from a thing that reverses itself?”
The angel stared. Rebellion burned in his breast. Is pain the same as learning? he wanted to ask, but did not, afraid of what the answer might be.
G-d’s mouth quirked. “You will be telling yourself that I am all learning, and no mercy. You will be grieving the loss of life and of joy for so many in the world. Hear this, then. Every person who hungers – I hunger. Every body that is ill, I feel. And every death is a death to me also. Every joy, too, is my joy. I am big enough, and you are big enough, and the people there – those short-lived, needy, beautiful, forgetful people – they are big enough too, to carry each loss within each other. That is the meaning of my speech, “V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham.”2 They built me a Temple for glory, and now they have it for a reminder, that wherever and however they are, I am in them and they are in Me.”
The angel stood up, shaking a little. Bowed before G-d. Stumbled off. Head reeling, he sat on the top of the mountain he liked best to stand on. He looked out over the rolling, fertile land, fat with grain that he knew now would not satisfy. He wondered what he could possibly do. And a thought came to him. “I will remember,” he said to himself quietly, and then he stood up and shouted, “I will remember for them!” What he had heard from G-d’s own mouth, he could communicate – not in human speech, but in presence. He could not undo G-d’s work. He could not even undo his own. But he could be with the people. He went forth from that place and began his new work: among the smells of a sick bedside, to the growls of hungry distended bellies, in the ears of the brokenhearted, in the flash of sunlight across a river, he whispered to G-d’s children, “You are loved.”
- Buber’s story appears here as it is related in Parker J. Palmer’s book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. pp.79-81
- Sh’mot (Exodus) Chapter 25, verse 8