The angel and the storyteller | Adath Israel

Our portion is Vayishlach, and it is the last one where angels figure extensively through one of the patriarchs, Ya’akov (Jacob). With next portion, Vayeshev, the presence of angels will diminish – Yosef has no encounters with angels. But angels will continue to figure prominently throughout the Jewish tradition, even though that imagery is recreated by Christians, and many Jews do not talk about angels at all. This is a traditional story that comes from Poland, in which angels play an important part, and in which a Talmudic discussion about one specific angel, Layla, is the background [you can read it by clicking here].

Long ago, in a place not far from here, there was  very pious rabbi, wise and knowledgeable in Kabbalah. He had a wife whom he loved dearly, and she loved him back. The couple was always at peace, and that happiness was only darkened by the fact that they had no children. Now, because of his knowledge of Kabbalah, one of the things he did for the people in the town was to write amulets for the women who had a hard time conceiving. As soon as the woman put the amulet around her neck, which had the name of the angel Layla, who is responsible for conception and pregnancy, she would become pregnant.

After many years, his wife finally asked him the question: ‘Dearest, if your amulets are so effective, why don’t you write an amulet for us?’

‘The people of the town need amulets to strengthen their faith in the Holy One, dearest. Our faith is strong, so we don’t need amulets. I am confident that God will send a child to us, we just need to be patient.’

That very night, both the wife and the husband had a vivid dream, with a beautiful woman, who called herself Laylah. She was the angel. And she told them: ‘The Holy One of Blessing has heard you. You will have a child within a year. The only request is that the child be named Shmuel (Samuel).” When they awoke, they were amazed to discover they had the same dream. And true, in a year she gave birth to a baby boy.

When he came out, after the midwife cleaned him, his skin shone and illuminated the bedroom. It was clear that this was a very special soul. But he was different than any other baby the midwife had ever delivered: ‘Look at his lips!’ she said ‘I have never seen a baby born without the separation on the top of the lips!’

As mother and child were resting, the husband came in and said: ‘This light that surrounds him is proof! Here is a very special soul, just like the angel Layla promised us!’

‘Do you know my friend Layla?’ a voice suddenly asked.

‘Who said this?’ asked the rabbi, amazed to hear a voice that was not his or his wife’s. ‘I did, I, you son’, the voice responded.

The rabbi’s wife sat on the bed and said: ‘But you are only an infant!’

‘Yes, mother’, the baby continued, ‘but the angel Layla gave me a great gift. She touches all other babies above the lips to make they forget everything they learn in their mother’s womb. But Layla let me retain all my memories. I still have work to do in this world.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked the rabbi.

‘Bring everyone of the town, everyone who wants to listen to a great story, and I will tell it.’

So the rabbi was seen like a madman, running around town, inviting everyone to their home, telling them that the newborn was speaking like a grown up man. And of course, even those who thought the rabbi had lost it on account of being a father, came to check things out. And suddenly, the small home of the rabbi was filled with people. The infant began speaking, to the amazement of all.

‘As you know, my name will be Shmu’el. As all other babies, I come to this place with the help and supervision of the angel Layla. She brought my body and soul together, and taught me from the Book of Mysteries, and she teaches every soul before they arrive to this plane of existence. But she flicks her fingers under the noses of the soon-to-be-born, so they will forget all they learned, and will discover the world anew, making new mistakes and discovering new happinesses. But Layla did not do that to me, because I have unfinished business.

In my previous life I was a storyteller named Shmu’el. I would travel from city to city weaving my tales and creating new stories, teaching Judaism through them. I became famous, as did my stories. And after many years of doing so, I felt it was time to retire, so I let people know I was going to tell my last story and that all were invited to listen. People came from all over, and from the very first word I felt this was going to be special. From the very first word, people were listening like a trance, nothing existed for them but my words. But I did not get to finish my story, my heart gave out in the middle of it.

The uproar on earth was only matched by the uproar on heaven. The angels too wanted to hear the end. As I arrived in Gan Eden, I was surrounded by angels wanting to know how the story ended. But I refused to tell them, because I thought it was unfair – people on earth were my main listeners, they were more deprived than the angels.

They insisted for years, and for years I refused. After 300 years, they finally gave up, and they requested that I be allowed to come back so the tale can be finished. That is why Layla permitted me to remember everything. So now I will begin telling the story again.’

And as Shmu’el began telling the story, a great wind filled the house, and people were amazed to feel and see angelic presences all around them. The tale was long and complex, and lasted many hours. But no one thought about leaving, they were in a trance, drinking the words of Shmu’el, just as they were when he told the tale the first time. Morning came, and still no one moved.

As the tale ended, Shmu’el felt a great relief, and all the angels began singing. The angel Layla stepped in, a beautiful woman, kissed Shmu’el on the head and told him this was the greatest tale ever told. She then gently flicked Shmu’el in the space between the nose and the lips. He closed his eyes, and went to sleep.

All the angels departed, including Layla. The baby awoke as people were leaving, and the only thing he could remember was how hungry he was. His mother fed him, and he was just like us – a newborn ready to make new mistakes and discover new happinesses.

Shabbat Shalom