Angel or Demon?
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Ya'akov left Be'er Sheva in the direction of Charan. He arrived and slept
there because the sun had set. He took some stones from there, put them
around his head, and lay down over there. (Bereishis 28:10-11)
Part of that story is the hot pursuit of Eliphaz, Eisav's son who had been
sent to hunt Ya'akov down and kill him. He did catch up to him along the
way, but was persuaded by Ya'akov not to actually physically kill him.
Instead, he robbed him of all his possessions, because as the Talmud says,
a poor man is like a dead man (Nedarim 64b).
Speaking of which, this predicament was not unique to Ya'akov Avinu, but
occurred as well to another very famous personality from Tanach: Shlomo
HaMelech. According to the Talmud, Shlomo HaMelech had been temporarily
deposed as king of the Jewish people by the head demon, Ashmedai.
As the story goes, Shlomo HaMelech had decided to begin construction on
the First Temple, and was confronted with a problem. According to the
Torah, the stones of the altar cannot be hewn using metal since it is a
material used to make weapons that kill. The altar symbolizes life and
tries to preserve it, and therefore using weapon material for the alter
was a contradiction.
For this purpose, G-d created the Shamir worm, a special little worm
capable of cutting through rock. However, there was only one such worm in
the world, and Shlomo HaMelech needed Ashmedai to tell him its whereabouts
and how to capture it, which first meant capturing Ashmedai himself. That
was accomplished, but only after setting a clever trap for him, and thus
Shlomo eventually ended up with the Shamir worm.
According to the Talmud, Shlomo HaMelech kept Ashmedai imprisoned in
chains sealed with the Name of G-d the entire period that the Temple was
under construction. One day, Shlomo HaMelech questioned his unusual house
guest -- a grave mistake, as the Talmud tells:
He [Shlomo HaMelech] asked the latter:
"What is your superiority over us alluded to by the posuk, 'According to
the power of His loftiness' (Bamidbar 23:22), for which they interpret
'loftiness' to refer to ministering angels and 'power' to demons?"
Ashmedai replied, "Remove this chain from my neck and give me your signet
ring, and I will show you my superiority."
No sooner did Shlomo HaMelech comply when Ashmedai snatched him up,
swallowed him, and stretching his wings, one touching the heaven and the
other the earth, he spit him out again to a distance of four hundred
miles. It is with reference to this time that Shlomo said, "What benefit
is there for a man who toils under the sun?" (Koheles 1:3), and "This is
my portion of all my labor." (Ibid. 2:10). To what does "this" refer? Rav
and Shmuel argue: one said it refers to his staff, while the other holds
that it refers to his kingly garment, with which Solomon went about from
door to door begging. Wherever he went he said, "I, Koheles, was king over
Israel in Jerusalem" (Ibid. 1:12). (Gittin 68b)
After being ousted by Ashmedai, Shlomo's stature was reduced dramatically,
and he was left with only his staff and his cloak. Regarding retaining
one's staff only, we learn from Ya'akov that this is a sign of one's
poverty, as Ya'akov said regarding himself, "With my staff I crossed the
river" (Bereishis 32:11), this statement being a description of his
poverty at that time. The posuk is actually from Parashas Vayishlach, but
it is recounting Ya'akov's state of affairs in this week's parshah after
Eliphaz robbed Ya'akov on his way to Padan Aram.
What benefit is there for a man who toils under the sun? (Koheles 1:3)
However, though the rest of Ya'akov's worldly possessions were taken from
him, Shlomo HaMelech at least retained his royal clothing (Maharshah,
In a separate tractate, the Talmud describes the complete descent of
Shlomo HaMelech from his height of power to his lowest level. At first,
Shlomo was king over both the upper beings (such as demons) and the lower
beings, such as humans. Then he lost authority and ruled over humans only,
then only over the Jewish people, and then only over Jerusalem.
Eventually, the Talmud says, he ruled only over himself, and finally, only
over his staff and cloak.
It is always amazing how quickly and dramatically life can change
directions. As they say, "Be careful with the people you see on the way
up, because you'll see them again on the way down." Such is life in this
world of ups and downs. Here was Ya'akov Avinu one day learning Torah in
relative peace and free of the hatred of his brother, and the next day he
is running for his life away from home to a strange land, and as broke as
one could be!
But there was a difference between Ya'akov's fall and Shlomo's fall, as
the Talmud discusses. The Talmud explains that it was Shlomo HaMelech's
marriage to the daughter of the Pharaoh that precipitated his fall from
power ( on the very night he finished building the First Temple! In the
case of Ya'akov Avinu, circumstances created his dilemma, and he had
responded to the call of duty. However, Shlomo HaMelech created his set of
circumstances, and not only did they pave the road for his own descent,
but it paved the path to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Thus, in the case of Ya'akov Avinu, he had been put to a test by G-d, and
that is why he not only passed, but all the results were only positive.
However, Shlomo HaMelech created his own test, and as a result, he almost
destroyed himself completely. Indeed, the Talmud argues whether or not he
ever regained his former stature, with one opinion saying yes, and the
other opinion saying that he never again ruled the upper beings.
The Maharal interprets this account, providing an insight into how to
maintain spiritual fortitude and how to learn a Talmudic midrash.
According to the Maharal, the chain with G-d's Name engraved upon it
symbolized Shlomo HaMelech's devotion to G-d, and it was this that
provided him with both the wisdom and ability to rule over the upper
beings as well as the lower ones. When he wanted to understand the
greatness of the power of demons, Ashmedai told him that he had no power
as long as he was bound by the chain with G-d's Name on it, and also while
Shlomo HaMelech wore his ring with G-d's Name on it.
That is, explains the Maharal, as long as Shlomo's devotion to G-d and his
clarity of mind did not falter, Ashmedai could have no influence over him.
For, as the gematria of Amalek hints (Amalek = 240 = suffek = doubt), evil
only has power in areas that men have doubt. When Shlomo complied and gave
up the ring and the chain, it symbolized a breaking of his resolve and the
loss of his intellectual clarity, and immediately he fell drastically,
losing his former stature.
This, in the words of the Leshem, is a perfect example of what happens
when a person chooses to be spiritually tested on his own. The basic rule
is, G-d can test us, but we can't test ourselves. Only He knows the true
limits of our own spiritual strengths, and can custom design a personal
test that can challenge us, but which we can also pass as well. We neither
know our own spiritual abilities nor what is involved in any test in life,
and therefore, we are more likely to fail than to succeed.
This, Shlomo HaMelech learned the long, hard way, and Koheles is his
testimony to the Jewish people throughout the generations that he left
behind. It says, in essence, "Look how greatly I erred, and how close I
came to spiritual oblivion. Learn from my mistake, and don't repeat it.
Let G-d give you the test. Don't enter them on your own."
No wonder we read Koheles just after Yom Kippur, on Shabbos Chol HaMoed
Ya'akov went on his way, and angels of G-d met him. When he saw them,
Ya'akov said, "This is an encampment of G-d." So he called the place
"Machanaim." (Bereishis 32:2-3)
In fact, says the Maharal, the whole episode is just a metaphor. In fact,
Shlomo HaMelech never really left the palace and wandered from
door-to-door as a beggar. Rather, his new behavior after being bested by
Ashmedai caused him to appear as if he was a demonic imposter who had
taken the throne from the real king. Only after the Sanhedrin re-endowed
him with a ring and new chain and rallied around him, did the "old" Shlomo
have the ability to fight off the forces of evil that had overcome him.
It was not an easy task, returning from the brink of spiritual
annihilation. Many have gone the same route and have never returned.
Instead, as they spiritually dissolve their perspective on life and Torah,
they lose their ability to even understand why they ever believed in Torah
in the first place. On the contrary, they assume that they have just
gained intellectual clarity, not that they have lost it.
Not everyone is Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest man to ever have lived, and
not everyone has the Sanhedrin to help them return to spiritual clarity.
And even then, it is questionable whether or not he ever fully regained
his entire kingdom. Furthermore, the Talmud says that Shlomo HaMelech
lived in fear of Ashmedai for the rest of his life ( a clear sign of the
lasting impact that his brush with spiritual death left on him, and the
demon that brought it about?
Demon? Do Torah Jews believe in demons? In Hebrew they have other names,
such as Shaidim or Mazikin, but a demon by any other name is still a
demon. However, unlike other views of such Heavenly beings, the Torah
perspective sees them as servants of G-d just as much as good angels are.
They work for G-d, and quite obediently for that matter, and can never
challenge Him or go against His will, no matter how much it looks to the
contrary. G-d is not at war with them and they are not at war with G-d.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Sitra Achra, often referred to as
the Satan, which the Talmud also calls the Angel of Death and the Yetzer
Hara, the evil inclination (Bava Basra 16a). But how can one being be so
many things at one time? The answer is that he cannot; he is each thing at
For example, in order to test a person's spiritual resolve, he starts off
as the Yetzer Hara, the inclination to do evil. As the Yetzer Hara, like
the Original Snake in the Garden of Eden, he creates an option to go
against the will of G-d, in order to provide the person with free-will
choice. Then the person has to decide what he will do, and to which voice
he will listen, his own or that of his evil inclination.
After the choice is made, and especially if the person chooses to sin, the
Satan quickly removes his hat as he rushes to stand before the Heavenly
Court. There he puts on the hat of the Prosecuting Attorney as be presents
the case of John Doe who has just sinned on earth down below. And, after
the verdict, he does a quick change again, this time donning of the
clothing of the Angel of Death as he is invested by the court to carry out
Thus, the Sitra Achra is more of a process than a being, a system by which
free-will is given to man and through which judgment of free-will
decisions can be carried out effectively. How G-d chooses to manifest His
systems ( like the angels Ya'akov met upon returning to Eretz Yisroel (
depends upon the time, the place, and the people involved. However, what
counts is that G-d is constantly involved in our lives, testing our
spiritual resolve in one way or another, in order to maximize our reward
in the World-to-Come.
At night, G-d came to Lavan the Syrian in a dream. He told him, "Be
careful and don't speak to Ya'akov either for good or evil." (Bereishis 31:24)
The Talmud makes an interesting statement, based upon this posuk:
Rebi Yochanan said in the name of Rebi Shimon bar Yochai: Any good from an
evil person is evil for the righteous, as it says, "Be careful in case you
speak to Ya'akov either good or evil." Bad is understandable, but why not
good? Thus we learn that the good of the evil is evil for the righteous.
In other words, even the favors of evil people are far from that. Now, the
Talmud does not mean that somehow and at sometime in the future the evil
person will double-cross the righteous one and harm him in the end. It
means that even if a righteous person receives and secures benefit from an
evil person, it is still no benefit.
It's not that the money, or the gift, or whatever the evil person did for
the righteous person has no objective value; it does. The problem lies not
with that which was given, but with the giving itself. It is as if that
which was received was stolen property to begin with ( even if it wasn't (
which makes using it honestly impossible.
This is because the process of giving and taking is not as finite as
people tend to think, or treat it. On the contrary, what attracts us to
possessions and even inspires us to surrender time and money for them is
the potential for relationship with them, on whatever level is suitable
for the "attainment" in question. Symbolism aside, we surrender part of
ourselves when we sell something we previously owned, and the new buyer
inherits it on some level.
This is why when a man marries a woman he gives a certain amount of value,
usually in the form of a ring. On one level, an acquisition is being made,
but on a deeper, far more esoteric level, they are both giving of
themselves to each other, and opening a spiritual conduit between the two
of them. They have the rest of their marriage to work on increasing the
potential flow through that channel.
This is why the good of evil people is evil for good people. The moment
you give something, anything, you create a relationship between giver and
receiver. To what extent that relationship can go depends upon what was
given and how, and though this may not be felt on an emotional level, it
is certainly true in the spiritual realm, to such an extent that the
spiritual impurities of the giver can go over to the recipient of an evil
And evil doesn't always mean that a person is doing the worst things
imaginable. Evil from a Torah perspective is also a lack of good, so that
even misguided people can be doing evil, though somewhat unwittingly. No
question that intention plays a major role in the evaluation of good and
evil, but still, evil acts even with the best of intentions carry an
aspect of that evil.
Thus, we see that even though Dovid HaMelech only killed with the
permission of Torah, still the "blood on his hands" prevented him from
being the builder of the First Temple. That honor fell to his son, Shlomo
HaMelech, who didn't have to fight the wars that his father did. And, even
though Ya'akov stole the blessings from Eisav for the sake of Heaven, it
was still called a "ma'aseh geneivah" ( an act of stealing ) for which we
have had to pay on some level. But that is all a function of Hashgochah
Pratis ( Divine Providence. )
So, in the end it is not a simple case of simply buying something, paying
for it, and checking out. There is room to be careful, not just about what
you buy, but where and how you buy something. For, it might come with a
spiritual dividend, and one that you might have preferred to do without.
Have a great Shabbos,
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.