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Encounters of the Angelic Kind

Our Torah study group at Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania was discussing the parashah Vayeshev in which Joseph wanders in search of his brothers until he comes across a man in a field who tells him where they have moved their flock. Our student rabbi at the time, Nicole Luna, remarked that the rabbis had decided that "the man" was an angel because without him, Joseph might never have found his brothers, been sold into slavery, and, after ascending to power in Egypt, been able to save the fledgling Hebrew nation. Angels, she said, are considered in the Torah to be melakh elohim ,literally messengers of God.

Nicole then asked us to share serendipitous, melakh elohim moments in our own lives. One group member talked about having won a lottery; others discussed landing a new job. My grandmother, Norma, spoke of meeting one of her best friends, Faye, in college. She also met Faye's then boyfriend, Bernie Sevel, whom my grandmother later married. I surely would not be writing this essay if it were not for that moment!

When it was my turn, I mentioned Alaina. We'd met in the marching band during my freshman year at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). We dated for about a year, during which time I was introduced to Heather through mutual friends. Heather and I struck up a casual friendship with wisps of romance, but after graduation we lost touch. A year or so later, a friend clued me in that Heather was no longer in a relationship. Being unattached myself, I reconnected with her and took her out on a date to the Erie, Pennsylvania zoo. Three years later the rabbi of my formative years, Burt Schuman, officiated at our wedding, and in another 18 months Heather gave birth to our first son, Ari Bernard.

As the Torah study group members commented on my story, I realized that an earlier, seemingly inconsequential decision had led to my choice to attend IUP in the first place. Penn State was much closer to my hometown, and was the alma mater of most of my family. Other schools had accepted me, too. Why did I go to IUP? Because I wanted to be a music major, and IUP had (and still has) a solid reputation for music education. What was my instrument? The trumpet. Why did I play the trumpet? Because I wanted to be good at blowing the shofar.

My melakh elohim story actually begins when I was 10. My parents took me to a Rosh Hashanah service, which I enjoyed, mostly because I was excused from school, a privilege not extended to everyone else since I was the only Jewish kid in my school. After services, I asked the ba'al tekiah (shofar blower), Bernie Shapiro z"l, if I could try to blow the shofar. As he handed me the small, caramel colored ram's horn, he offered a couple of tips. I tried to follow his advice, puffing up and blowing as hard as I could-but no sound came out. My mom laughed. "If you want to blow the shofar, you need to practice," she said. "And the best way to practice is to learn to play the trumpet."

As it happened, my elementary school was now offering music lessons for our grade. I signed up for trumpet and practiced for many years-not so dutifully, but enough to become a proficient and reliable shofar blower. When I became a bar mitzvah, my mom's two sisters presented me with my own shofar, a beautiful cream and smoke colored horn which remains one of my most treasured possessions. From that point on, I was allowed to join Bernie on the bimah on the Days of Awe.

When I moved on to junior high and high school, I naturally joined the marching and concert bands and eventually decided to become a music major at IUP.

Thus, my messenger of God story really hinges on my childhood desire to sound the shofar. Had I not wanted to play it, I wouldn't have taken trumpet lessons; wouldn't have joined the junior high, high school, and college marching bands; wouldn't have decided to major in music; wouldn't have gone to IUP; wouldn't have dated Alaina; and wouldn't have met Heather.

So, the next time you are thinking about the twists and turns your life has taken, why not stop for a moment to consider the melakh elohim in your life. The answer may surprise you.

Mike Holzer, a web developer, is a lifelong (and third generation) member of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he currently serves on the Board of Trustees, manages the website, teaches 6th grade Sunday school, and is the resident ba'al tekiah.