View from the Ladder

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Eighty years ago, the United States debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. It did not. And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I’m sure it was not lost on Jews throughout this country.
These have been weeks of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath, by sadness, fear, and anger. What happened on a Friday evening – the Shabbos! – in mid-November in Paris captures our imagination and won’t let go. And the attacks last week on the tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.
All of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn’t possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.
So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?
We dream a ladder. That’s what we do. It’s what Jacob did, in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob’s moment was not so dissimilar to ours.
In his flight, Jacob reaches an in-between place. A border, between Canaan and Haran, between home and unknown, between past and future. And something happens to him there. He stops and pays attention to hamakom, meaning “the place.” But also to the other meaning of Hamakom, the ubiquity of God. In the first verse of this episode, Hamakom is mentioned three times:

Jacob reached Hamakom and lingered all night because the sun had set. He took from among of the stones of Hamakom and put them at his head. And he lay down in Hamakom to sleep. [Genesis 28:11]

So there is Jacob, sleeping literally on the ground, and lying figuratively within an awareness of God’s presence.
And Jacob dreams. A doozy of a dream. He sees a ladder, arcing down toward the earth with its head anchored in heaven, angels ascending and descending it.
Our sages and mystics have speculated about every element of this dream. The number of stones. How big is the ladder? How many rungs? How many angels? How big is an angel’s wingspan? Some have said Jacob himself was the ladder; others say that each of us is a ladder, while some moderns connect the ladder of the vision to the double helix of a DNA molecule. But just about everyone gets caught up on the fact that the angels ascend and descend – they start below and climb up, when we’d expect just the opposite, for angels to begin in heaven and then climb down.
Sages have speculated that since this was a territorial border, Jacob is witnessing a shift change: the angels of Canaan who had been escorting him climb back to heaven to punch out, while the angels of Haran descend to accompany him the rest of the way. The great commentator, Ibn Ezra, points out that reading this as a simple plot is useless. The very word sulam, “ladder”, is an anagram of semel, “symbol.” So that the angels are climbing a ladder of symbolism – a wonderful post-modern twist for the 12th Century. Ibn Ezra saw the angels as emerging from people themselves, in the form of our prayers. Angels ascend to heaven and God responds with salvation, in the form of the angels climbing back down.
Jacob lies there, asleep. If we were standing next to him, all we would witness would be his breathing. Breath out, breath in: the breath, neshimah, that so often in our tradition is equated with the soul itself, the neshamah. It is a breath of soul, our own spark of divinity ascending to heaven, and divinity streams back down. An exchange of holiness, not unlike the circulation of oxygen and carbon dioxide between us and the trees.

Breathing with the trees is a good metaphor, yet Torah tells us that Jacob dreams about a ladder. Why a ladder? Maybe because the ladder is tall. While Jacob is pinned to the ground by gravity, the holiness that circulates through him gets a higher, better, longer view. It escapes the particulars of Jacob’s life, of Jacob’s fears, of Jacob’s habitual thinking. And perched above those things, Jacob’s spirit has a chance to bring back something fresh.
Albert Einstein is famously quoted to have said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A similar teaching of the Piasetzner Rebbe who would say that bringing about repair in the world of action – or the world of speech – requires first ascending to olam hashtikah, the world of silence. In other words, we might not know yet what the answer is to the troubles around us, but responding in the old way, with military strikes and border fences and political grandstanding is not going to do it. Einstein would say to change our thinking. The Piasetzner would say to spend some time in the world of silence. And Jacob, our patriarch, would say to send angels up a ladder for a better view.
I don’t know what our angels will see from up there or what we will see from up there. But I know we will be free to see things above our fear. From a few rungs up we might see back to an age not too long ago when Jews and Muslims walked arm in arm in the gardens of Spain and North Africa, sharing music and art and speculations about God; and how we fared so much better there than we ever did in the ghettos of the Christian north. Maybe from a couple rungs up, no longer held down by the gravity of ISIS and Israeli-Palestinian bitterness, we can remember that this is true, too.
Maybe from a few rungs up, we might look at our infatuation with images of violence in our entertainment and it will all seem silly and mystifying, and we will gather new ideas on how to make a world in which violence is rare and certainly not a way to sell products. A world where the custom is to meet fire with peace.
And maybe from a few rungs up we might experience compassion as the strength that it is, rather than any kind of weakness. This experience could enable us to more easily dismiss the attempts of terrorists and politicians alike who try to engage the human experience of hatred. Instead we will take the highest, most loving road, welcoming and helping refugees in a way that honors our ancestors and serves as a tikkun, a redemption, a corrective, of this country’s failure to welcome them in their moment of greatest need.

Maybe from a few rungs up we can see the divine spark in each other. And perhaps notice who else is perching at altitude.
Change might not be quick. After his ladder dream, Jacob lived in fear of his brother for 20 more years before crossing back to the land of his birth where he and the long-feared brother fell on each others’ necks and wept. But on the other hand, in biblical time, twenty years? Bupkis!
I have no particular outcome to offer, but rather a meditative process to propose: To find your own border spot, like Jacob did, the place of personal boundaries, the edge of your comfort zone. And to lay your head down on the rocks of Hamakom – the awareness of God’s presence, even in the uncomfortable places – and to dream. Of ladders, of angels, of a loftier view. And see what comes to you.
And when the world below grabs at you (and it will try), defy gravity.
Irwin Keller has served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, California for the last eight years, and is a rabbinical student in the Aleph Ordination Program.