An Angle on Angels
From: Jonathan in Johannesburg
Who is on a higher level, man or the angels?
It depends from what angle.
Certainly angels are higher than man in respect to their level of comprehension of spiritual matters, their inherent greatness and their degree of holiness. Regarding their comprehension, the Zohar states: The comprehension of angels is very greatwhich is not the case of those below them on the second level.The comprehension of those on the third level which is founded on the earth is the lowest, that is the level of comprehension of people (Zohar Chadash, Bereshet, Midrash Neelam, on the verse G-d called the light day). Regarding their greatness it says, the angels are closest and first to receive the power and influence from [G-d] on high, and from them it flows down into the physical universe and all it contains, and from there down to man (ibid. 16b). Finally, regarding their holiness, the Zohar claims, The angels are holier than we are (Teruma 129b).
However, man has one overwhelming advantage over the angels. That is his soul. The human soul is what G-d breathed of His own eternal life-force into man, such that the soul itself is considered a part of G-d on High. While the lowest level of soul is bound in the body of man, its higher levels reach up through all of the worlds until its fifth and highest level is of, and within, G-d Himself (see our article on Soul). Since mans soul originates from within G-d Himself and infuses all the worlds on its way down into the physical body, it serves as a type of soul for every level of reality that it permeates. Therefore, just as the soul animates the human body, its being an extension of the Divine enables it to animate all the worlds through which it descends as well.
Since each of the 613 mitzvoth correspond to 613 different parts of the body, which in turn are connected to the soul, a person who exercises his free will to perform the Will of G-d actually corrects, perfects and illuminates the upper worlds through which the soul reaches. Every thought, word or deed, then, has great potential to elevate, connect and unify the entire creation in harmonious recognition of G-d. This is something that the angels could never do. The Kabbalists explain that an angel is only one specific force in the array of the universe, with no free will, fixed and static (Eitz Chaim, Penimiut and Chitzoniut, derush yud). That is why angels are referred to as standing seraphim (Is. 6) or these standing ones (Zech. 3), since they operate in only one plane, have no independent power to effect anything and have no free will. In contrast, man in relation to the angels is called a mover among the stationary (ibid.).
In fact, since, through free will, mans thoughts, speech and actions have such a profound influence on all levels of reality, from the lowest physical plane to the highest spiritual one, and since angels are fixed within these different realms, humans actually determine, together with G-d, the very status of the angels. This expresses a deeper meaning behind Jacobs vision of the ladder whose legs rested on the earth, whose head reached into heaven and upon which angels ascended and descended. It symbolizes mans essence - simultaneously fixed in the physical world but linked through the different levels of the soul, like rungs in a ladder, to the loftiest spiritual spheres. In this way, man can actually elevate or, G-d forbid, corrupt, the entire creation, including angels.
- Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim, Part 1 chapters 1-10