It’s a wonderful chai

In this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, we are told (32:24): “A ‘man’ wrestled with (Jacob) until the break of dawn.” Jacob recognizes that this wasn’t some ordinary human — that he did, indeed, encounter an “angel.” This angelic vision, whether it literally wrestled with Jacob or not, served a purpose: Jacob was forced to take a serious look at his life, confront his weaknesses and overcome them. Jacob’s history involved deception and running away. And he emerges from this encounter a new man with a new name, and in the process becomes a leader, ready to face life ahead with purpose and vision.

The Hebrew word for angel, malach, literally means “messenger,” a being with a mission, sent by G-d to perform that mission on earth. Rabbi David Hoffman remarks, “Each angel becomes worthy of singing a song to G-d only upon the completion of this unique mission for which he was created and sent into the world.” 

As I read these words, I noticed that this scenario rang a bell. The description of this malach reminded me of Clarence, the jolly, gentle angel tasked with saving George Bailey’s life in one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life!” OK, there were a few differences. Clarence, once a human, died and currently existed in this cosmic holding area waiting to earn his wings. He was also one of the main characters in a decidedly non-Jewish fictional piece of entertainment. But minor details aside, he had a lot in common with Biblical angels. 

Poor George Bailey lived his entire life helping others in the small, sleepy town of Bedford Falls. All he wanted to do was get out of town and see the world, but circumstances prevented that from happening. When he is accused of stealing money from his company (thanks to a misplaced bank deposit and the machinations of the town’s rich meanie, Mr. Potter) it looks like he might be headed to prison. He then decides that if he ended his life, his insurance money would bail his family out of trouble. Enter Clarence. He is tasked with a particular purpose: to prove to George Bailey that his life had meaning and touched the lives of so many others. If Clarence could accomplish this angelic mission, he would earn his wings. 

Similarly, Jacob’s divine wrestling partner, as he sees the dawn breaking, begs Jacob to let him go, pleading, “I am an angel and from the day that I was created, my turn to recite song to G-d has not arrived until this moment.” In other words, upon accomplishing their mission, Biblical angels can earn the right to sing in the Heavenly chorus; Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, can also earn the right to fly. 

Clarence is a bit more creative than Jacob’s angel. He doesn’t resort to physical sparring. He devises a plan to show George what life would have been like if he had never been born. And this alternate reality is something out of a nightmare. Suffice it to say that the town of Bedford Falls makes Sodom and G’morrah look like Disneyland. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler alert to tell you that everything works out in the end, and George comes to realize that, indeed, he has had “A Wonderful Life.” And, you guessed it, Clarence earns his wings.

I love this movie! And although it is indeed a Christmas tale, it shares a lot in common with one of the themes in today’s parashah. Both of our protagonists do seem to recognize that they are dealing with an other-worldly being. They also emerge from their encounters changed men. Rabbi Hoffman explains, “Jacob is in danger of missing out on his life and the blessings that he alone can bring to the world. After wrestling with this angel…he is no longer simply Jacob, the man who is intertwined in his brother’s life. Jacob has now been blessed with the name Israel, finally beginning to become the person he is meant to be.”

Similarly, George is in danger of becoming a frustrated, depressed, resentful man, seeing himself as trapped in a town that offers him little chance of becoming his best self. He is barely able to support his family and sees his life going nowhere. After his journey with Clarence, he sees his life in a whole new light, grateful for the blessings of friends and family, having a clearer vision of his own merit and purpose, and truly able to live the Wonderful Life that has been his all along. 

I contend that despite the fact that the last scene has him standing under his Christmas tree, George has a Jewish neshama/soul. Our tradition teaches us that if we save one life, it’s as if we have saved the entire world. George literally sacrifices his dreams and aspirations to help others fulfill their own. And he even saves a few lives along the way. Take away the Christmas tree and set the story in the Lower East Side, and you’ve got a brand-new Hanukkah tale. Now that’s entertainment.

Cantor Sheri Allen is beginning her 13th year serving Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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