THE RIGHT MODEL
Rabbi David Walk
There's a fascinating web site called Edge.org. They claim that to reach the edge of knowledge put the world's most complex and sophisticated minds in the same room and let them ask each other the same questions that they are asking themselves. Quite often the discussions are way over my head, but sometimes the most interesting ideas emerge from these discussions. In the most recent mailing from Edge, I received this talk by Raphael Bousso (professor of physics at UC Berkeley), in which he explains that there are basic problems within physics in trying to explain why the universe is how it is. For example, how come most of the universe is empty with only periodic clumps of stuff (galaxies, stars and planets)? Shouldn't the cosmos be more homogenous? And, if the movement of the galaxies away from each other is based on the Big Bang, how come the expansion is accelerating instead of slowing down? Now, I basically understand these questions, but Professor Boussa suggests three visions of how our universe works and each may provide a different approach to answering these fundamental problems. I haven't got a clue how these theories work. They are string theory, inflation and cosmic strings (This has nothing to do with string theory). These theories provide models of our cosmos to help us understand and even visualize the workings of Creation. It's like the Standard Model of atoms. We visualize atoms as small solar systems with electrons spinning around a solid nucleus. Now this is not an accurate depiction of reality, but it helps us understand the workings of both physics and chemistry, so we keep using it.
How about we do the same thing in the spiritual realm? Why don't we try to come up with an idea which will help us approximate the reality of how our physical world interacts with God's spiritual abode. The image doesn't have to be totally accurate. It can be a metaphor. As long as it helps us to better understand how we are supposed to behave so that we can remain in contact with spirituality. Would you believe that our parsha provides us with just such a theoretical model? Here it is: And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it (Genesis 28:11). It makes no difference whether we translate the Hebrew word sulam as stairway or ladder or escalator. The image is clear. There is a vertical passageway which connects us down here with God up there, and it's possible to send information back and forth by means of messengers which we call angels or agents. I think that God sends down inspiration and revelation; we send up our mitzvoth.
We view most of our business in this world as horizontal movement, east, west, north, south, but we view our relationship with God as vertical passage, up and down. Like the cosmological models, this ladder model can explain many different phenomena. For example, this can be thought of as a schematic model helping us to visualize the relationship between the spiritual realms. In Kabballah we talk about the worlds of action down here, above that is the world of formation, higher again is the region of creation and highest of all is the realm where God resides called Atzilut or emanations. Alternatively, this model can be used to describe historical developments. First there was the Egyptian bondage, then there was the Babylonian destruction, later we experienced the Greek philosophic challenge to our way of life and, finally we are still coping with the great Roman persecution. History is viewed as a progression in which the nation finds itself challenged on ever higher planes as we approach an eschatological end of days.
All that's cool, but I prefer a more personal approach. The ladder represents my personal connection to God. God stands over us all and we are constantly trying to adjust and improve that connection. The Sfat Emet points out that the verb used to describe the upright stature of the ladder is mutzav when nitzav was expected. Mutzav is a passive term which implies that the ladder is being continually set up. Each of us is arranging the ladder over us, because we are inextricably bound to the ladder. Our physical bodies are at the foot of the ladder and our souls, which are a small piece of Divinity, are with God at the top. We spend our lives keeping the flow between the two extremes open at all times. Therefore there are parts of me, actions or thoughts, on all of the rungs between earth and heaven. If I leave any steps unoccupied are uninvolved then I run the risk of losing the link between my body and soul. This requires me to be contemplating spirituality or performing mitzvoth all the time. It's this total involvement which keeps sending the messages (or messengers or angels) which occupy the rungs.
Now we can understand an enigmatic passage towards the end of our parsha: The angel of God spoke to me in that dream and said,…, 'Look! The goats are going up. I have seen all the wrong things Laban has been doing to you. I am the God who appeared to you at
As Professor Boussa explained, problem solving requires models that can help us visualize the issues we deal with. As spiritual beings we need the ladder model to help us keep focused on the job, which is: Excelsior, ever upward!
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