Friday, November 20, 2015

Climbing the Ladder of History - A Modern Midrash/Allegory - Parashat Vayeitzei - November 20, 2015

[There is a rabbinic story that tries to answer why there were angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob's dream, rather than down and up, as we might expect.  That explanation suggested that each angel that went up and down represented the ascent and demise of great world powers.  Jacob never seemed, in these stories/midrashim, to get the opportunity to get onto the ladder himself for his people.   Here is my take, in light of world events and how people are talking about each other, especially those different from them, on how Jacob might take his place on the ladder of history]

Jacob took from the stones of the place and made a headrest. And he laid down for the night, and fell asleep.
He had a dream.
It was vivid. 
He felt awake.
He felt alive.
He was amazed.
He saw a ladder going up to the sky. 
There were angels going up and down on it.
But he noticed something strange. 
The angels that were going up and then down
did not get back on the ladder and ascend again.
It was one trip up, one trip down, and gone.
Jacob was puzzled.  He had no one to ask.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, God materialized, taking a spot by the ladder to heaven.
Jacob knew who it was. He didn't have to ask. 
"God, what's going on with these angels?  I would expect angels to come down from heaven on the ladder and then go up.   What I am seeing is just the opposite.   I am baffled!"
 God stood silently, pondering how to answer this young man who had left his home to flee from the wrath of this brother Esau, who was still angry with him. 
Jacob was obviously struggling to come up with solution to his puzzlement.
God finally spoke up, "There is a reason for what you see.   Do you remember what your mother Rebekah told you about what she heard before you were born?"
Jacob instantly recovered the memory of that divine promise and prediction.  "Yes, God, I do.  She said that Esau and I would become two nations, that one of us would be greater than the other, and that the older would serve the younger....or was it, the older brother the younger one would serve?  She could never get that part straight."
 God replied quickly, "There was a good reason for her uncertainty, Jacob.  You see, it's all up to you.  You will serve your older brother unless you become the best of what you can be.  Reach your potential for cooperation, for compassion, for leadership, and you and your future generations will endure.   I can't reveal what that greatness will mean exactly, because I don't know the whole story myself.    You will be in charge of making your own history unfold.  But you will be great, and the people that will one day name themselves after you will do their best to set an example of conscience for the world." 
Jacob was still perplexed as he looked at the ladder.
"God, what about the angels?  I am still confused.  Who are the angels on the ladder?"
  "Why, Jacob," God said as if a wise teacher, "those angels represent the nations of the world that have not yet come to be.   Each of those great civilizations will rise, going up each rung as they grow in the knowledge they acquire, the land and wealth they amass, and the support that they give one another in their society.  They will even find ways to make people from the outside, foreigners, feel welcome inside their cities and towns.    Then something will happen.  It's just human nature.  It will all go wrong.   They will forget about how to be generous to strangers.  They will look at them with suspicion, with disdain, and, finally, with contempt.  Eventually, that is how they will begin to look at each other.   Compassion and mutual support will disappear from their relationships.   They will stop trusting those who govern them, even if they are ruling in good faith and with a sense of responsibility.   They will care only about gaining power over each other until their lack of human kindness and humility will destroy them and their nation."
Jacob was shocked, and afraid.  He thought to himself, "How could a world exist if this is how people would act?" He spoke up, "God, thank you for showing me this vision.  I would never even think of getting onto that ladder now!"
God was taken aback.  "Jacob, don't you get it?  You have to get on the ladder.  How else will you become the great nation that I promised your mother and father, and your grandparents, that you would be?   You have to be brave and take a chance."
"God, you just told me what will happen to all of those other great nations.  They will, by the end, be corrupt and self-serving. They will forget what it means to think positively about other people and other nations.  I don't want that to happen to my descendants.  I am not climbing up even one rung!" 
God was silent for a moment, for a few moments, for what seemed like an eternity.  And then God said, "Jacob, don't be afraid.  I am here with you now, and admit to yourself, you had no idea that I have been your invisible traveling companion for all the years while you have been growing up.  I have been watching.   You have such potential.   When you wake up, you will realize that I was here with you.  You will put up a stone and call this place Beit El, the House of God.   And you will declare that this spot is a gateway to heaven, the very spot where you realized that a divine presence is constantly accessible to you.  That is why you have nothing to fear." 
Jacob still wasn't convinced.  "God, every other nation seems to forget about you.  I know that you are One - my parents told me that my grandfather Abraham realized that we are all connected in your Oneness.  And that is what made him special.  What if we forget that, God?  What will happen to my people?"
God was pleased at hearing Jacob think so clearly.  "Jacob, that is the right question.   I will be sure that your descendants will remember that I am One, and that they will teach each new generation that my Oneness means that all of you human beings, even when there are deep divisions between you, are still One.  Someone has to remember that.   One day you will be called 'Israel' - I can't tell you why right now.  You'll see soon enough.   But generations of the people of Israel will recite the words, 'Hear, O Israel, God is ours and God is One.' Some of them will recite those words every week, some every day, some more than once a day.  You have nothing to worry about.   But that will all happen only if you have the courage to get onto that ladder."  
"But God,” Jacob insisted, “what if they still forget that You and we are all One?   You have seen how Esau and I have fought each other.  What if all humanity is locked in bitter conflict like we have been?"
"Don't worry, Jacob, even if there is conflict.  You will get through it.  Just don't be afraid of anyone.  Consider everyone as a potential neighbor, not an automatic stranger to be kept at arms length.   Love me, love yourself, and love those around you as you love yourself.   If you take to heart those words and let them guide you, you will find your way back to the right path even if you go astray.   Are you ready to get on that first rung now?"
Jacob felt a calm overtake his entire body.  A smile came to his face, one that reflected the brightness and wonder represented by this spectacle of a ladder reaching to heaven.
"I am ready, I go...."

And Jacob awoke from his dream, and said, "God was in this place, and I had no idea.  I hope God will be with me wherever I go."    And Jacob set up a stone to mark the spot, and went on his way.  

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