Blog - Torah Insights

Why Angels Won't Multitask

When I was in the first grade, just beginning to study the book of Genesis, I was fascinated by the stories, the personalities, and the drama. But nothing captured my imagination more then the angles. There was something so mysterious about them, disguised as ordinary people, they would show up at the right place in the right time, and solve some problem with their supernatural powers.

And yet, I knew that however great the angles, they had a weakness. Immediately at the first mention of angles in the Torah, the commentators are quick to point out that the angles could not perform more then one action at a time.

Why did three angles come to visit Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent hoping to find people to invite? Because there were three items to be accomplished, and angles do not have the ability to multi task. As Rashi explains:

And behold, three men: One to bring the news [of Isaac’s birth] to Sarah, and one to overturn Sodom, and one to heal Abraham, for one angel does not perform two errands. You should know that [this is true] because throughout the entire chapter, Scripture mentions them in the plural, e.g., Concerning the announcement, however, it says: “And he said: I will surely return to you.” And concerning the overturning of Sodom, it says: “For I will not be able to do anything”; “I will not overturn”. And Raphael, who healed Abraham, went from there to save Lot. This is what is stated: “And it came to pass when they took them outside, that he [the angel] said, ‘Flee for your life.’” You learn that only one acted as a deliverer.

As a young child this was comforting. Maybe I can't fly like an angel, but at least I have the can do other amazing things like run and shout at the same time.

Now, a few years later, I ask myself, why is it so important for Rashi to keep emphasizing the angles weakness?  Why is it so important for every child studying Genesis to know that angles cannot perform two things at once?

Perhaps it's because it's not a handicap. Perhaps this is the secret to the angels power. Perhaps Rashi tells us about the angles as a critique of the human condition. Perhaps he is telling us, that although we will never able to achieve the goal completely, we should loose the ability to multitask. 

The angel cannot do more then one thing at a time because the angel identifies with the task completely. The angel has no other dimension to his personality other then fulfilling God's mission; no personal name, no personal agenda, no personal ego, to get in the way. At this moment he is nothing but the task. As such he cannot perform two acts simultaneously, as it's impossible to be, fully, in two places at once. 

The human on the other hand, even when performing the will of G-d, never looses his own ego. The human always maintains the sense of an independent identity, an identity which happens to be engaged in the mission. As such he can never become one with the mission, and therefore, some aspect of his identity will always be able to engage in something else.

Rashi understood that the child reading the story is no angel. Yet Rashi is trying to teach me how to be more like an angel. How to be fully engaged in what I am doing to the point that I forget abut everything else. How to help someone else, and, while doing so, loose my own ego, and know of nothing else in the world. How to speak to my child, carefully look her in the eyes, and listen. Listen as if, at this moment, I have nothing else in my life. Listen as if I have no emails, no deadlines, no one to meet, no place to go, no other interests.

He is teaching me to listen like an angel. 

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