Sunday, September 26, 2004

Emulating the angels

There is a well-known Jewish tradition that on Yom Kippur we strive to emulate the angels: We abstain from physical pleasures (food, drink, washing, leather shoes, marital intimacy), we wear simple white clothes, and we stand for long periods of silent prayer. In this, we demonstrate our desire to free ourselves from domination by our physical needs, to be, like the angels, humbly obedient to God and innocent of sin.

This imagery is very beautiful. There's only one problem.

It doesn't work.

However I try, after spending 25 hours without eating, drinking or washing, much of it standing in uncomfortable shoes, I don't feel like an angel. I feel hungry, thirsty, dirty, weak and achy.

I can ignore those feelings to an extent, but they won't go away. Persistent angel-emulation would quickly leave me bedridden, ill, and, before long, dead.

In case you hadn't realized, there's a tiny but crucial difference between me and an angel. Angels, I understand, have no physical bodies and thus no need or desire for physical pleasures. I do, and I'd like to keep it that way.

The more I try to behave as if I don't, the more I succeed in proving the opposite.

I suspect that's the real point of the angel-emulating metaphor. Our day of ersatz angelhood only serves to demonstrate how unlike angels we really are. We are physical beings, with all their intrinsic vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We cannot change that, however much we might wish to.

Were God to have wanted unquestioning, unerring, obedient servants, he would have created us as angels, not as weak and fallible men. As men, though we can strive to perfect our behavior, we will inevitably fall short - often far short - of God's demands.

On Yom Kippur, we implicitly beseech God to judge us as the men we are, not as the angels we cannot be.


Rachel Ann said...

I think the emphasis is on trying to be like, not on achieving it. We give these things up to try and emulate a different level of being; I won't really say higher, because angels are not tested. They really can't go against their programing.

Maybe you are correct and that is the intent; however, I think perhaps the intent is to take the best of both worlds. To be hunans who need but can transcend their need for the physical and, at least for one day, thrive on the spiritual only.

That said, I'm tired and hungry and headachey also.

Zman Biur said...

"I think the emphasis is on trying to be like, not on achieving it."

But in the very act of "trying to be like" angels, we are being different from them. Angels don't have to "try" not to eat or drink; they just don't need to in the first place. They don't have physical urges to suppress in the first place.

I think part of the point is that we, as humans, are demonstrating that we have the self-control and willpower to suppress our physical needs; by submitting ourselves to God's will for one day, we prove to God - and ourselves - that we are capable of doing so in the future.

We show our devotion by willingly denying ourselves, by suffering. Not in an unbearable or permanent fashion, but in one which we cannot sustain for long and stay alive.

None of this really applies to the angels, in my opinion.