Mal'ach is the Hebrew word for angels. It means "messenger." The Torah has many instances in which angels interact with man to facilitate God's will. In Genesis, these instances include, but are by no means limited to, the angels who guard the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve are expelled and the angel who stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Jewish teachings, like Catholic teachings, extend beyond the written word of God (see my previous article, Oral Law) and this is applicable to delving into the topic of angels as well.
Since angels have always played a role in the interaction between God and man, ancient Jewish thinkers have contemplated their purpose since time immemorial. Whether acting as God's heavenly worshippers crying, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" or delivering messages of forthcoming ruin and devastation against Sodom and Gomorrah, angels have held the fascination and rapt attention of Jewish rabbis at all points in time.
Most agree that angels act as intermediaries, as when an angel appears to Moses in the burning bush. Here the thought is that Moses, as righteous a man that could be found, was not yet ready to see God face to face and so God provides an angel as a necessary intermediary, showing God's great love and compassion in, once again, providing what man needs in any given circumstance.
It is quite fascinating that angels may be viewed, according to some of the ancient thinkers, as working in an intermediary relationship between God and man when the task is something below or beneath God's inherent dignity or at a time when it just would seem odd for God to deal with something firsthand, even though He most certainly is capable. Rabbinic teachings reflect upon this in an attempt to understand instances such as when an omnipotent God does not Himself reveal the news of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is interesting food for thought. Serving a monotheistic God, Jewish teaching continues to strive to understand everything within that framework. Consider how difficult it would be to fathom God wrestling with Jacob; but the idea that God would make use of an angel to bring about this necessary transformation of Jacob to Israel is easy for us mere humans to grasp.
Archangel Michael — which is often translated "Who is like God?" — is considered to be the guardian or protector of Israel. However, a more succinct translation of his name is actually "He who is assuredly God" coming from the Hebrew word miykael which is comprised of three Hebrew words: [miy] (who is), [kiy] (assuredly), and ['el] (God). This is why there are many Christian theologians today who study Michael with such great care, hoping to reveal his true identity and thus understand more fully Michael's role in the book of Revelation. Many of these Christian theologians contemplate if Archangel Michael is, in fact, Christ. Arguments for and against this theory abound.
Nonetheless, Archangel Michael is also considered to be the chief angel in both Old and New Testament writings. He is venerated as a soldier-angel and his feast day in the Catholic Church is September 29th. It is important to note that Michael's intercessory role in humanity seems not to have yet ended. Monte Sant'Angelo is a shrine in Italy where St. Michael is said to have appeared a number of times, including during a plague in the year 1656 where a bishop invoked St. Michael's effective protection against the epidemic. From that point, the site became an even more popular shrine.
Like Michael, Gabriel is a named angel in the Old Testament. Gabriel's name translates "Strength of God" and his role (I use the gender reference to these angels without intention of offense but in the same way that our creed says for us men and our salvation) has always been one of deliverer of news. This is evident with the first appearance of Gabriel in the book of Daniel where Gabriel, identified by Daniel as "a manlike figure," interpreted Daniel's vision of the ram and he-goat, but also in Gabriel's role in the annunciation. Thus Gabriel, like Michael, traverses the Old and New Testaments, connecting in many ways the people of the old covenant to the people of the new covenant. Saint Gabriel, along with St. Raphael, shares St. Michael's feast day of September 29th.
And while archangels hold a special place in our hearts and in our fascinations, guardian angels are also quite dear to humans. We share stories, from our firsthand knowledge, of times where we are certain our guardian angels have fulfilled their roles, For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways (Psalm 91:11) or we share stories with messages that provide great solace in the knowledge that even today God's messengers are looking out for us.
Although people cannot become angels upon death (sorry, Clarence of "It's a Wonderful Life!") this does not mean that we cannot act in a heavenly way towards our fellow man. So while we look for God's messengers to take a firsthand interest in our lives, let's remember that God always provides us with opportunities to be angelic to one another!