Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vayetzei 5769: A Two-Way Ladder

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA, December 5, 2008]

Parashat Vayetzei opens with one of the most potent and memorable images that Torah gives us. It is oddly stuck into the middle of a melodramatic plot line. Jacob is fleeing his brother's wrath after having stolen the blessing that their father, Isaac, had reserved for him. Jacob pauses for the night on his way from Beer Sheva to Charan and this is what Torah says happens:
  1. He came to a familiar place and spent the night there because the sun had already set. Taking some stones, he placed them at his head and lay down to sleep there. He had a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. God's angels were going up and down on it. And behold he saw God standing over him.
God then goes on and gives Jacob a similar blessing to the one that God gave Abraham and Isaac.What jumps out at you as odd here? Because our sages love the odd. If all in Torah were straightforward, we’d have no commentary, no Midrash, no Talmud. What here troubles or interests you?

Here are three among many items that are worthy of comment:
  1. Jacob uses a rock as a pillow.
  2. God speaks to Jacob in a dream instead of directly. Why?
  3. The angels go up and down, not down and up.
Addressing the second question first, God certainly didn’t need to give Jacob this vision at all. God could have spoken directly and blessed directly. Somehow this particular image, though, must be important for Jacob - and for us who read Torah. There is something to be learned from it that we wouldn’t have gotten from the blessing alone.

So why “up and down” not “down and up”?

The rabbis went crazy with this one. They understood "up and down" to be sequential, and they struggled to figure out why angels would originate on earth and not in heaven. Shouldn't they start above? Some of their answers were practical. The angels, like police officers or newspaper boys, had regular beats. At the end of your land, your accompanying angel loses jurisdiction. So your angel ascends again to heaven. Who descends? The angel who will accompany you on the next leg of your journey.

Some answers were more political. The angels here are the collective avatar or embodiment of different nations. They might all rise and have their heyday, but then they will all fall again. In Roman times, when the end of the Roman empire was not in sight, this was an expression of a hope that change would come and Roman oppression would end.

I like to think of this instead as a model, a road map, for our relationship with the Divine. It’s a two way street. But the traffic starts from right here. Right now. It involves our dispatching our angels, our messengers, out into the Divine realm first. In other words, we don’t wait for God’s angels or words or revelation or even inspiration to come to us. We don’t wait for the Divine message. We instead must open ourselves up to it by starting the climb. Sending out our feelers. Looking for the Divine. Acting in accordance with our sense of the Divine. We send the first email, and God hits reply.

As is the case with all Jewish ideas one can think of, this is not a new idea. There is a longheld element of our theology that our actions force the hand of God. Can you think of examples? Some see prayer that way. Some see acting for justice that way. It becomes imbued with blessing as we engage in it. Have you ever had that experience? Doing something that is right, standing up for something that is right, and by the time you’re done, it feels like you were acting out God’s will.

There’s a story that we’ll get to in a few weeks that when Pharoah decreed that all male Hebrew children should be drowned, the Israelite men refused to sleep with their wives, so that there would not be new babies to suffer this. The women, however, according to Midrash, realized that by doing this, the men were punishing the female babies along with the male babies, by preventing any of them by being born. So the women, in an act of resistance to Pharoah’s decree, seduced their husbands. And that seduction was what aroused God to resist as well, and to begin the act of redemption.

Our Kabbalistic tradition is full of theurgy – ways to force the hand of God through elevated consciousness.

But even without elevated consciousness, I think this particular vision is telling us that if we start the communication, the Divine will come. If we act in ways that are Godlike the Divine will come. If we open ourselves up to the possibility of the Divine all around us, then we will see it.

So why a rock under the head?

Because a rock under your head is uncomfortable. When we reach out to be open to the Divine, the transcendent, the magical, we have to do it from where we actually sit. You can’t and shouldn’t wait for the ideal moment and perfect surroundings to speak to the Divine in the world. Jacob was in the desert, not in a garden. His head was on a rock, not a meditation pillow. He wasn’t at an ashram, or in a temple or in a lotus position next to a babbling fountain. He was in an uncomfortable, probably painful, probably cold, place.

At the end of the blessing Jacob wakes up with a start and says:
  1. God is truly in this place but I did not know it. How awesome is this place! It must be God's temple. It is the gate to heaven.
If it looked like Eden, he might not have been so surprised to have met God there.

So we seem to be instructed not to hold out for the perfect corner in the perfect temple with the right didjeridoo music in the background. It is in our lives – our uncomfortable, sharp-edged, ugly, noisy, busy, rocky, coarse lives – that we must set up our ladders. We must practice looking around when we’re doing laundry and when reading a book and when boarding the bus, smelling its diesel fumes. When we lie down, when we rise up. Etc. It can be anywhere, any time. Including in the 100 year old Cotati Women’s Club. In joy, in sorrow, and in the particularly challenging realm of the trivial.

Wherever you are, consider a practice of taking a moment to stop and say to yourself, God is here and I didn’t even realize it. This is all a miracle and I didn’t notice. מה נורא המקום הזה - Mah nora hamakom hazeh.
How awesome is this place. Send out your angels there and then. And angels will be sent back to you.

1 comment:

etzim said...

"God was in this place and I (Anochi), I did not know (lo yadati)." In our study of this passage this past shabbat, I learned that there is midrash regarding the redundancy of this passage (I, I did not know), to the effect that Jakov is declaring his ignorance about G-d, which was previously based on his extensive Yeshiva training, but now upon a direct perception -- he even sees G-d, albeit in a dream -- and lives to tell the tale. (This interpretation is further strengthened by the use of the archaic pronoun, Anochi, which is at times appropriated to G-d.)
So it is, perhaps, a cautionary tale about the limitations of the Yeshiva - and Jakov's subsequent life is one of householder and ranch hand with wives and children and flocks - as well as Jakov's (and our) tentative steps to live out this vision. His immediately subsequent vow to make a tithe is never fulfilled, and in some sense, the loss of Josef is the process G-d initiates to collect on G-d's tithe from Jakov, which G-d graciously returns with interest.
So you might find in this story a further justification for the penitential formula, "teshuvah, tefillah, utsedakah reverse the stern decree" which we frequently decree against ourselves. So keep those tithes flowing. Keith Barton (