You can find Torah anywhere, including a 1990s drama


The “Touched by an Angel” cast, starring Della Reese, Roma Downey, John Dye and Valerie Bertinelli. (CBS)

Rabbi Rachel Kay Bearman

As a teenager, I would sometimes (often) turn on the television while I enjoyed a post-school snack. At that time in human history, my options were to watch whatever show was on… or to dig through the cabinets in our living room, hoping that I would be able to find whatever VHS tape I was looking for. More often than not, I took my chances with basic cable, and that is how I discovered “Touched By An Angel,” a show which aired on what was known at that time as the PAX network. 

For those who weren’t fortunate enough to experience “Touched By An Angel” firsthand, it was a deeply ernest, overtly religious show where angels, including my favorites, Tess and Monica (played by Della Reese and Roma Downey respectively), were sent to earth to interact with mortals in various ways.

The best part of every episode was the big reveal, i.e. the moment when the humans at the center of the episode’s arc learned that their lives had been touched by an angel (or sometimes multiple angels… depending on the humans’ angelic needs). These reveals were expertly produced, and even though I haven’t seen a single minute of the show in more than 20 years, I can still remember the way that the music would shift and the angel would suddenly take up the majority of the frame while a warm, “heavenly” light cascaded down on them. The mortals would stare at them as the angels explained that God had been present all along and that they had simply missed all of the signs. These reveals were always played so seriously by the actors, and I remember being very moved as I watched the characters put together the puzzle of clues that the episode had presented them with and then (inevitably) come to believe that God had placed angels in their path to act as guides and comforters.

I always think of those long-ago “Touched By An Angel” viewings when I read this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. In the parashah, Balaam is hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse his enemies, the Israelites. What Balak doesn’t know is that Balaam is in contact with Adonai, the God of the Israelites, and has been told by God that he should not do what Balak has demanded. There is some back and forth in the story as Balaam repeatedly turns down Balak’s request (order) to curse the Israelites until finally God tells Balaam that if he is “invited” again, he should go with Balak’s emissaries. Balaam follows God’s instructions, and when he is once again asked to curse the Israelites, he saddles his donkey and follows the Moabite dignitaries. 

On Balaam’s journey, his donkey begins to act oddly, shying away from something, swerving off of the path, and then collapsing onto the ground rather than continuing. Each time this happens, Balaam dismisses the animal’s instincts and treats her horribly before trying to force her to move forward. After Balaam repeats this pattern for a third time, God allows the donkey to speak, and she chastises him for his cruelty to her. Then, God orchestrates a “big reveal,” and suddenly Balaam is able to see that his animal has been reacting to the presence of an angel who is standing in the middle of the path, holding a mighty sword, and blocking the way forward. (Numbers 22:28-31) 

The angel that was put in Balaam’s path was much less warm and comforting than those on the show, and yet, in that moment of revelation, Balaam learns the same lesson as the characters did at the end of every episode: 

That ordinary creatures- human or otherwise- can be messengers of the Divine, and, if we walk along our path with humility, acknowledging that there are forces outside of our control and aspects of the world that we do not yet understand, we will be more likely to see the Divine shining through the eyes and hearts of those around us. 

I am not sure that I believe in angels- either as they are portrayed in the Book of Numbers or on “Touched By An Angel,” but I find great inspiration in this lesson which our ancestors and these particular TV showrunners used the angels to teach. 

May we be open to the glimpses of the Divine that are scattered throughout our existence. 

May we strive to keep our hearts and spirits ready to encounter the Divine in all the people (and animals) that we meet. 

May we be blessed with communities and loved ones who make us feel as if our lives have been touched by angels. Amen.