Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Walk Article-Vayetze



Rabbi David Walk


            We really don't know very much about the place where God lives.  There are many stories in Jewish tradition about the wonderful Garden of Eden where we go after death, or the marvelous heaven where souls dwell. Some describe the righteous sitting at a grand and eternal banquet, while others discuss the spiritually great sitting around with crowns basking in the Divine Presence.  But it's hard to take these descriptions too literally, because they seem to be written to teach us some moral lesson rather than to describe celestial geography.  Plus, there are no Google maps.  So, do we know anything at all about where God resides?  I think the answer is a definite maybe.  I say this because there are two places in Tanach where we seem to get some hints about God's neighborhood.  One of these is the first chapter of Ezekiel, and the other is the opening scene of this week's Torah reading.


            What is going on in Ezekiel's initial prophetic vision?  Easier asked than answered.  Ezekiel is standing by the Chebar River in Babylon, a long way from our Holy Land.  The skies open up and Ezekiel sees first a storm, then strange lights, followed by many types of angels and, finally, a throne.  This throne is borne aloft by these various forms of angels.  This entire four sided apparatus is referred to as God's Chariot, which can move towards any of the four compass points.  Actually everything in the vision comes in fours.  The verses remind me of the climatic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, something otherworldly is paying us a visit.  The vision may be murky, but the message is pretty clear.  God's Divine presence moves about the world to remain accessible to the Jewish nation no matter where we have been exiled.   Although there are great spiritual advantages to being in Eretz Yisroel, nevertheless our connection to God has not been totally severed by our distance from the Holy Land.  Our religion is as portable as our people.  This message was critically important to the denizens of our first successful Diaspora community, Babylonia.


            But what's going on in the beginning of this week's parsha?  After Ya'akov has stopped for the night during his flight from Israel and his brother's wrath, he sees in his dream a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. Upon this ladder are angels of the Lord, ascending and descending.  The rabbinic commentators over the centuries have tried to understand where the ladder was standing.  Was it standing in Be'er Sheva, Beit El or Jerusalem?  Did it go straight up or at an angle?  Perhaps, the center was over the future site of the Holy Temple, where Avraham almost sacrificed Yitzchak and, apparently, Yitzchak went to worship God.  Where exactly did the ladder pierce the firmament and enter the spheres of heaven?  And, how many rungs were on this ladder?  To tell the truth none of these fascinating queries interest me very much (at least not this year).  To me (at least this year) there are only two interesting questions:  What's the difference between a ladder and a chariot? And, what's at the top of the ladder?


The image of the Divine chariot cruising through space to supervise the Jews no matter where they may be is a very powerful picture, and I assume gave great hope to the exiles in Babylon.  It almost presents the idea that God makes deliveries.  We can still get into contact with God in our prayers or maybe in our actions because God's presence is hovering above our heads like some sort of blimp above a major sporting event.  I wonder about the logo on its side, perhaps a giant 'G' or the Tetragrammaton.  The ladder, on the other hand, suggests a very stable object, not prone to much movement.  The ladder cries out for us to ascend rung by rung to a higher plane.  The Chariot presents us with solace and comfort when we feel so very distant.  The ladder portrays a challenge to those with the temerity to accept.  Climb my rungs and find yourself higher than you ever dreamed.


The Diaspora often looks more appealing than Israel.  It often bestows great attainments with less effort, because we have caught a hitch on the infrastructure provided by another.  The Zionist option is much harder.  Whatever we accomplish in our homeland must be done through the sweat of our collective brow alone.  No one else is providing the power, protection or possessions.  But the rewards are greater, and more satisfying. 


However, the most important aspect of both of these amazing images is that God is atop both contraptions.  Whether God hovers into our sphere on a floating throne or we must climb to attain God's presence, it's most essential that we realize that our spiritual goal is always to achieve proximity to God.  Our only glimpse through the veil to the Other Side informs us that God's presence dominates the landscape over there.  We can't make out the scenery or the structures but we are informed that Divinity abounds.  I guess that's all we need to know.  What we aim for and strive to achieve is this immediacy with the Divine.  Maimonides promises us that this propinquity to God is the greatest of possible pleasures.  Unlike earthly bliss, this heavenly joy has neither limit nor fatigue.  It is eternal and satisfying.


The visions of both Ya'akov and Ezekiel teach us that we can gain God's presence in this world, either the more passive Diaspora version or the more active Israel model.  This week the emphasis is on the Zionist model of a stairway to heaven, which requires supreme effort and courage to clamor aboard.  We are reminded of the Hebrew idiom for immigrating to Israel, Aliyah, the Ascent.  It's not easy to get up from our comfortable slumber in the Diaspora and make the climb, but we are being assured that it is worth the effort because a greater proximity to God is the result and the reward.  Excelsior!