Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Walk Article-Vayetze



Rabbi David Walk


            Throughout history religions have relied on very powerful visual symbols and images to advance their agenda.  We have all benefited from this reality because much of the world's greatest art was produced for this purpose.  There are many reasons for this phenomenon.  Religions often were wealthy and could commission the art.  Sadly for most of human history the vast majority of people were illiterate and these artistic depictions of religious stories were the best way to teach them.  Often we Jews were the odd man out.  When you visit the great museums of the world, relative to our pagan and Christian cousins, there is scant Jewish representation.  So, the beginning of our parsha is a rare outlier.  We begin this week's reading with a famous and robust image.  Our episode begins with Ya'akov's dream of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven.

            In my many years of teaching, speaking and writing I've discussed Ya'akov's ladder many times (Which rabbi hasn't?), but I'd like to offer a new approach this year and I must acknowledge an article by Rav Itamar Eldar, on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website which pointed me in this new direction.  I hope he'll forgive me that my conclusion is very different from his.   Rav Eldar begins with an extremely important point.  He explains that Ya'akov's departure from Be'er Sheva must be viewed as a paradigm for the plethora of Jewish leave takings from our multitude of transient homes throughout our torturous history.  Every one of these departures was accompanied by an anxiety and apprehension concerning what the new venue would hold in store for us.  The apparition of the ladder was to reassure Ya'akov and his progeny in these trying circumstances, but what was the content of the reassurance?

       One way of answering this question was suggested by Rav Yisroel Hopstien (1737–1814), also known as the Maggid of Kozhnitz.  He wrote:  And Ya'akov was afraid. That is, when he contemplated the length of the destruction of the second Temple, fear and dread fell upon him, saying, when will we come to the end? "And he said, 'This is no other than the house of God'." That is, he was consoled by the fact that evidently the destruction is preparation for the future Temple that will be called God's permanent residence for all of time (Avodat Yisra'el,[2] Vayetze).  In other words Ya'akov was consoled by the promise that we would come home.  The prophecy of the dream was very depressing concerning the short term, but bullish about the long term.  We can make it through our difficult now because of a promising thereafter.  

            There is, however, another point of view presented by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Rebbe of Apt (1748–1825, the ancestor of the Rabbi Heschel of the 20th century).  The great founder of the Apter dynasty of Chasidut wrote:  God consoled him with the promise: "I am the Lord God of Avraham your father… to you will I give it." That is, whatever you are lying upon and worrying about, I will certainly give it to you and to your seed. "I am with you, and will keep you." That is, even when they are in exile, I will be with them and keep them. He strengthened himself and said: "Surely the Lord is here and I knew it not." That is, "I had imagined that God would abandon them there in their exile, and they would be left, God forbid, without His providence. But now I truly see that even His Shekhina is with them in exile.  Ya'akov then returned to his earlier thoughts and communion with God (Ohev Yisra'el,[3] Vayetze).  This is a potent idea which is common throughout Chassidut.  God will be with us wherever we go.  The divine Presence doesn't depend on the place but on the person.

            Which interpretation is correct?  I have a strong feeling that throughout history rabbis have explained the symbol of the ladder based upon the immediate circumstance within the community the rabbi was addressing.  It's not that rabbis twist the meaning as much as rabbis tailor the message to the audience.  The Torah is not a one size fits all text; it must be customized to the consumer. 

            However, I do believe that there is a right answer.  And the correct response is door B.  I think that the central point of the vision is that God will be with Ya'akov and his descendants wherever they may wander.  This is similar to the revelation granted to Ezekiel at the beginning of his book.  There on the banks of the Chebar River in Babylonia, Ezekiel sees an apparition of the Divine Chariot.  This four-sided heavenly vehicle hovers over the Jews in Mesopotamia informing them that God continues to watch over us wherever we may find ourselves.  This great sight became the source for much kabalistic speculation, but much more importantly has given hope to countless generations of Jews throughout our varied Diaspora.

            Two images, one message, but is there a difference between these two metaphors for eternal divine supervision?  Yes, I think so.  The glorious chariot displays the reality of God's movement with the Jews through history.  The emphasis is on mobility.  This idea has given succor to Jews distant from our homeland in location, time and mindset.  The stationary ladder, on the other hand, advocates another program.  The ladder is firmly grounded in Israel, but has infinite reach to extend Divine Presence wherever a Jew may be found.  But that Divine Presence is rooted in Israel, our eternal home.

            Both of these majestic visions have supported our improbable survival all these many centuries.  However, I strongly affirm that today Ya'akov's Ladder must supersede Ezekiel's Chariot as our main focus. If our generation doesn't feel the centrality of Israel to our Jewish identity then probably no generation ever will.  We must acknowledge Divine Presence wherever we may be, but we must feel the gravitational tug of Israel drawing us to its source.  We must sense the power at the base of that ladder calling us home.