In the early stages of medieval Jewish mysticism, the figure of the angel Sandalfon--a fiery angel in the "seventh heaven" who was always close to God's Throne and who brought the prayers of humans before Him--emerged. In this capacity, Sandalfon is celebrated in the medieval religious poetry known as piyyut. Solomon ibn Gabirol, one of Spanish Jewry's greatest poets (11th century), portrayed Sandalfon as the angel who bears the prayers of Israel to its God.

In a deeper sense, prayers are angels and Sandalfon is a metaphor for them. A prayer uttered to God from the heart of the petitioner will sprout wings and fly heavenward. There are many stories about the prayers of truly pious people: Some Hasidic masters supposedly generated visible flames around their bodies as they prayed, while others caused such a commotion in the heavens with their prayers that the angelic hosts were forced to stop whatever they were doing and listen....

In the summer of 1952, peace talks between the Americans and the North Koreans were in progress at Panmunjom. I was stationed near Taegu, not too far away, as a chaplain for the Tenth Army Corps. From my headquarters, I set forth every morning in a jeep on the way to units miles distant, where I led Jewish soldiers in prayer. Because I covered about 300 miles every week along bumpy and narrow mountain roads, someone painted the legend "Rough-Ridin' Rabbi" on the back of the jeep. Above the words was a rough sketch of a Jew wearing a prayer shawl with his hands outstretched.

The week before I was to return to the States, I held my last service for the smallest of the congregations--four men and one woman (an army nurse), who also were the farthest to reach. For months, our attendance had been 100 percent. At the last service, one of the men was missing, as I soon learned, permanently so. He had been killed by a land mine three days earlier, and his body was already aboard a transport plane on the way home.

We could not get into a prayer mode in any routine fashion. The prayer book somehow failed to say what was in our hearts. The nurse, a lieutenant named Sarah, spoke: "Does God really listen to prayer, Rabbi?" And she wept. Almost immediately, the rest of us broke into tears. The tears flowed freely, punctuated only by sobs that still ring in my ears. When all was quiet, I said, "Sarah, I think you have the answer to your question." I asked them to join me in the traditional memorial prayer, the Kaddish. Our service ended. I remained in the tent for about an hour talking to the men. Sarah had had to leave.

I came back to get into my jeep. I stopped short. The outstretched hands of the Jew in the prayer shawl had been replaced by wings. Sarah was a few feet away. "Drive back carefully, Rabbi," she said. And she waved farewell.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus