In an article for Mishpatim, 5773, Rabbi Cherki discusses the difference between the angel mentioned in this week’s Torah portion and the one described after the sin of the Golden Calf.
In this week’s Torah portion we have an opportunity to meet an angel. “Behold, I am sending an angel ahead of you… And I will make enemies of your enemies, and I will oppress your oppressors… And I will destroy them.” [Exodus 23:20,22]. The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave one of His angels a special task, to help Israel capture the land. We were not told this angel’s name, but the sages said his name was “Matatron“, derived from the fact that his position is behind the Divine Throne of Glory (“mata” means behind, “taron” means a chair).
The fact that an angel is sent on this mission is surprising. In the Torah portion of Ki Tissa, after the Holy One, Blessed be He, forgave the nation for the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses was told, “I will send an angel in front of you, and I will expel the Canaanite” [33:2], he objected and said that he did not want an angel – “You did not tell me whom You would send with me” [33:12]. “If Your face does not accompany us, do not raise us up from this” [33:15]. Moses even threatens that if the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not lead the nation by Himself, they would not be interested in continuing the journey to the Land of Israel. However, in this week’s portion, Mishpatim, Moses does not react to the news at all. Rashi offers one explanation, commenting on the verse, “Behold, I am sending an angel ahead of you” – “Here Moses was told that the people would sin (with the Golden Calf) and the Shechina tells him, ‘I will not rise up within you’ [33:3].” According to this, having an angel accompany the people was merely one of the possible alternatives.
However, the Ramban does not accept this approach. He feels that the angel in this week’s Torah portion is different in essence from the one later on, in Ki Tissa. The angel in Ki Tissa is a minor one, of the type that is assigned to every nation of the world. Sending such an angel is a sign that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is repulsed by Israel, and that He no longer guides the nation directly but only through an intermediary. The angel in this week’s Torah portion, on the other hand, is one who is linked to the “face” of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as in the verse, “An angel from before Him (literally: an angel of His face) saved them, out of His love and mercy” [Isaiah 63:9]. This specifically refers to the Holy One, Blessed be He, directly guiding His nation. This is a type of angel that is desired both by G-d and by the nation as a whole. And that is what Moses meant when he said, “If Your face does not accompany us” – he wanted contact with the “Angel close to G-d’s face.”
And this explains why in this week’s portion it is written, “Do not rebel against him… for My name is within him” [23:21]. The sages took this to mean, “Do not replace Me with the angel.” Do not become confused between the angel and G-d, it is important to differentiate between the Creator and His messengers. Perhaps this is a hint of the tendency which appeared among Bnei Yisrael to make one of the creatures into a god. The Torah therefore warns that even the angel who is called by His own name – “for My name is within him” – must never be considered a replacement for G-d. This is the opposite of what was done by a group that rose up at the end of the era of the Second Temple, who deified a person whom they thought was an angel.