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Parshat Vayetse: Stairway to Heaven

It’s become an iconic image – one that has lent itself over many years to artistic representation by some of the most renowned artists such as Chagall and Rembrandt.

Not for nothing artists were attracted to this image. There is something evocative about the portrayal of a ladder to heaven. We have seen it already in the story of Babel which has also been the subject of many artistic and literary portrayals.

In the words of the lyrics from Led Zeppelin song, everyone wants to buy a ‘stairway to heaven’; a peek into the realm of the divine; a direct passage to transcendence and clarity. It is not surprising that the connection between heaven and earth, human and Divine, musters great artistic curiosity.  The relationship stirs not just our human imagination but also the minds of many 21st century philosophers who grapple with the question of how God fits with a modern view of reality that prioritises a scientific, rational outlook? Classic responses are to either naturalise God and religion like Spinoza famously does, or to opt for a pantheist view that identifies God with the Universe. Both these views deny transcendence – there is no ladder and no heaven. On the other side, there is the idea that one must leave the world to find God. God is in this view, is the mysterium tremendum, He cannot be sought nor intuited in the world but is only reached through a radical mysticism that denies worldly living – there is a ladder but its direction is only up. This kind of Asceticism, however, is foreign to the Jewish outlook. So how do we ensure the ladder between heaven and earth endures? How do we maintain the connection?  In other words, in a world where God is hidden, how do we envision the ‘makom’/ God?

In this week’s Parsha Jacob travels away from the comfort of his childhood home, from familiarity and the known - from the boundaries of his tent - into a kind a geographical but also existential exile. An exile from the person he once knew, the naïve tent-dweller he thought he was…until he wasn’t, until he became the trickster, the betrayer, until he opened himself up to a boundaryless existence. God brings an early sunset and Jacob lays down at the edge of the boundary, much like the edge of the boundary he will find himself on the way home some 20 years later where he meets the stranger and finally comes face to face with his own internal self.

According to the commentaries, God prematurely creates the sun to set in order to cause Jacob to lay down in this ‘holy’ place which was the site of his father’s near sacrifice and the future temple. There is an important message God wants him to learn by dreaming and having revelation here. In ancient religions there was a distinct separation between the realm of the God and man, and even man himself has elements of the divine and mundane – Judaism comes and turns the entire idea on its head. There is a clear separation between heaven and earth. Humans dwell in the earth and God dwells in the heaven and man’s role is to remain very much earth bound whilst sanctifying earthly existence. In the words of Martin Buber, “If you can hallow this life you meet the living God”.

Until now everything had boundaries – Yaakov was the tent dweller – ensconced in a very narrow and parochial existence of spiritual elevation. He is forced away from that life, the life of the tent and dreams in the open space where there are no boundaries and no structure. Precisely here at the fringe, the edge of the abyss he experiences Divine revelation – can he be in this place? Can there be Divinity outside the structures of the sacred tent?

In awakening from his dream, he exclaims “אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה' בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי – Behold God is in this place and I did not know!” It is the unexpectedness of the encounter that shocks him. Could God be here? In the chaos, outside the boundaries of the known and the holy land? In the place that is NOT the tent – Not the place of learning of torah of purity of simplicity? In the place of the mundane, where chaos reigns and uncertainty pervades? Is God here?  The answer is yes – its indeed in that place that God is to be found. Judaism is not a religion that seeks withdrawal from the world but instead convenes in the nitty grittiness of lived life. We are instructed to create holiness and intuit the Divine in the patterns of lived life in the world. Covenantal living, as taught in the Torah, asks us to live in the world rather than escaping it. There are, as the dream suggests, angels here on earth – many who we have seen over the last 7 weeks. Heroes dressed in the skin of humans, who are altogether ordinary, who are not Divine but have the Divine image carved into their being and have chosen to bring it into their lives. They have taken the ordinary and elevated to the extraordinary.

Yossi Herschkowitz ז"ל who fell in battle in Azza was the wife of a colleague Hadas. Hadas, an incredibly kind, sweet and gifted woman herself works for the Israeli side of the Sacks Legacy Trust, through which we met. In a summer retreat of the Sacks Scholars which Hadas helped to organise, Yossi joined us for shabbat.  From even a brief encounter it was clear Yossi was unique, as they say in Hebrew מלח הארץ – a man who was the salt on the land. Listening to radio the other day I heard the presenters talking about Yossi. One of them described his visit to the shiva and said as he sat there listening to these incredible stories about him he kept thinking – this man sounds like an angel – מה ביני לבינו? – what is there between me and him? And then someone told a story of how as a student in university, Yossi played  trick on one of his friends. He persuaded his friend to enter some lottery that would win him a subscription to Haaretz newspaper. His friend refused but Yossi pushed him. A few days later the friend got a call to say he won, amazed he ran and told Yossi. For three days a newspaper was delivered outside his door at 5am. On day four it didn’t appear. He called Haaretz to complain, “there is no subscription and you did not win any competition” the women told him. At that point the friend realised that Yossi had pranked him, calling him and waking at 5am for three mornings in a row to put the newspaper by his door. The presenter said at that point he realised he was much like you and me – a fun, normal guy who happened to choose to do extraordinary things in his life and that is what made him so great.

When Jacob becomes an ‘ordinary person’ someone who isn’t totally pure, dwelling in the confines of an untainted almost ascetic life, he thinks God is no longer accompanying him, “what’s between me and God when I am not longer sacred and pure?”. But Jacob’s dream compels him to look at himself from a different perspective – literally as portrayed in Chagall’s painting. Having gotten used to his narrative, his story, his suffering, his accepted self-perception, he is forced to look at himself from a different perspective. Only then He is able to see things differently – see himself differently – see God differently.

If we return to the question of divine revelation and the human relationship to God in this world – perhaps what we can learn from Yaakov, is that at times we need to step back and look at reality in a different way, from a different perspective, in order to detect the divine footprints and human angels that are present in our world. But to do that may require us first to break down the borders, the walls, the constructs, the paradigms, the tent that we have built up and reside in. It may ask us to return to the open space, the chaos, the madness in order to see properly again and detect signs of transcendence in our all too human world. Only then the can we begin the journey that starts in darkness, so that in the end we can return when the sun rises.

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