It is a rare occurrence when we think of the appearance of a guardian angel as being a bad thing. Nonetheless, we know of the “thumbs down” that Moshe Rabbenu gives to just such an offer from Hashem after Chet HaEgel. In Parshat Ki Tisa (33:1-4) Hashem tells Bnei Yisrael that He will be sending an angel to lead them into Eretz Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael’s reaction is one of rejection. They clearly interpret this as a punishment from G-d, and respond by mourning the loss of the special relationship that they once had with Hashem (see specifically 33:4). Despite Hashem’s own explanation of the benefits of this arrangement, that the extra space the angel will provide between Bnei Yisrael and G-d will protect Bnei Yisrael when they sin (33:5), Moshe remains unconvinced. “And he (Moshe) said to Him, if You (lit. Your face) do not go with us, let us go no further than this place”(33:15).
It is clear from these passukim that for Bnei Yisrael at any rate, a guardian angel was a step down, a sign of the loss of Divine providence rather than a symbol of heavenly intervention.
If this is the case, however, then we can not help but be struck by the contrast to our parsha, where a similar announcement by Hashem seems to pass by without comment or reaction. The news that G-d is sending an angel to watch over and lead Bnei Yisrael (23:20-23) is met with neither dismay nor mourning. There is no demonstrative removal of divine crowns, no impassioned protests from Moshe Rabbenu. In fact, the news seems to elicit no reaction whatsoever.
Rashi (23:20), anticipating this question, suggests that the statement in our parsha was, in fact, not a description of what would be immediately, but rather is a foreshadowing of the events that are described during Chet HaEgel. Bnei Yisrael are being forewarned that their behavior subsequent to Matan Torah will lead to sin and that Hashem will withdraw from them.
The Ramban asks the obvious question on this approach. As we saw above, Moshe Rabbenu’s reaction to the suggestion that a Malach lead the people was both sharp and unequivocal. “If You do not go with us, then let us go no further than this place.” As the subsequent passukim in parshat Ki Tisa demonstrate, Hashem accedes to this demand. So what happened to the declaration in our parsha?
The Ramban himself, in defending Rashi (we will get to the Ramban’s own approach a little bit later) suggests that when Hashem agrees to continue to lead Bnei Yisrael after Chet HaEgel, He is not canceling his plan to have a malach lead Bnei Yisrael in his place; He is merely deferring it. In deference to Moshe’s request, Hashem continues to lead Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar throughout Moshe’s lifetime. Upon Moshe’s death, however, the original plan is reinstated, and a malach is dispatched to lead Bnei Yisrael. This is the background of the famous story at the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua (5:13-16), where Yehoshua meets a sword bearing angel. Interestingly enough, the malach never directly answers Yehosua’s questions as to what the Malach has come for. That, says the Ramban, is because he has not come for any specific purpose other than to be the Divine presence in the Jewish camp.
The Abarbanel, seeks to explain the passukim here in a more immediate fashion. He suggests that what has been unnatural thus far in the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim and the subsequent time in the midbar is the depth of Hashem’s involvement. Such involvement, claims the Abarbanel, while natural in Eretz Yisrael, is usually the domain of agents (“sarim”) outside of Israel. It is Hashem’s intent to return to the standard state of affairs, namely that Bnei Yisrael’s destiny in Chutz LaAretz be managed by a malach as opposed to directly by G-d.
According to this approach, we must return to our original question. Why does Moshe not protest? The Abarbanel answers that according to the original plan, Bnei Yisrael would be entering Eretz Yisrael over the course of th enext few weeks and therefore Moshe does not view this as a problem. When faced with a similar decision after Chet HaEgel, Moshe realizes that Bnei Yisrael is looking at a significantly longer time frame. Hence is sharp reaction.
The Ramban, after defending Rashi’s explanation, suggests an entirely different approach to our problem. In essence, the Ramban looks outside the box. Rather than seeing the passukim here as referring to an actual malach, the Ramban suggests that this malach is none other than Hashem himself. In the words of the Ramban, “This angel is the Malach HaGoel ( the angel who redeems, referred to by Yaakov on his deathbed to his son Yosef) that the terrible name of G-d is found in him.” In other words, this malach is merely a shell that contains Hashem’s Divine attribute of redemption through judgement (Din). Such an approach neatly solves our original problem. Moshe will not object to this particular malach, one which emphasizes rather than minimizes Hashem’s presence within the nation.
This particular approach is actually quite popular with later commentaries. The Netziv adopts it wholeheartedly, contenting himself to explain the Ramban’s position. The Malbim, too, adopts a variation of this approach.
Several hundred years later, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch turns this approach on its head. He, too, looks outside the box to discover just what this malach might be. And he reaches the opposite conclusion. The malach is not Hashem, but rather it is a man, specifically, Moshe Rabbenu. Rav Hirsch suggests that this is not only time the Torah refers to Moshe as a malach, but that this usage of the word can also be found in Bamidbar 20:16. There, Moshe is trying to explain Bnei Yisrael’s peacful intentions to the king of Edom and tells him how Bnei Yisrael had been taken out of Egypt by a malach. This, says Rav Hirsch, was Moshe Rabbenu. (Obviously, this reading of the passuk is not the only possible explanation).
Interestingly, Rav Hirsch also explains the Malach Hagoel as used by Yaakov as not necessarily referring to an angel but as divinely ordained fate. In our pasukim, it is a man who is leading the people toward their divinely ordained fate “toward the land that I have prepared for you”. The tool can change. The master of the tools does not.
This concept of an angel is very potent. On the one hand it suggests that a person need only look around to see “his angel”, how Hashem uses everything and anything in order to bring about His will. More importantly, it also suggests that just as everything around us has the potential to be an angel, that we, too, as individuals have that same potential. Each of us has it within ourselves to be chosen as the tool to further Hashem’s plan in ways that we can only guess at, and more often than not might not even expect. Our goal must be to make ourselves worthy of the task.