In this week’s Torah portion of Vayetze, Yaakov encounters a numinous dream as he travels from Be’er Sheva to Charan. “Behold a ladder is set up on the earth, and the top of it reaches to heaven, and behold angels of G-d are ascending and descending on it.” (Bereishit: 28-12). The dream continues with G-d speaking to Jacob assuring him of G-d’s support and watchfulness, and that his future offspring will be blessed. Jacob awakens in awe and erects a holy monument to mark the place Bethel, G-d’s house, and pledges to give a tenth of all his bounties to G-d’s world.
At times in our life, we are blessed, like Jacob, with the “Great Dream.” or intuitive insights that alert us to our destiny and responsibility. We can attempt to ‘live out our dream or we may dream away our lives!’ We can honor our encounter as a gift from the Holy One, and honor G-d by committing ourselves to actualizing our insights and carrying out our soul’s calling in this world or allow the gift of the dream to fade away. Jacob, because of this numinous experience, immediately commits himself to carrying out G-d’s ways and immediately builds a symbol to mark the event. For he knows how easy it is to allow even an inspirational event to flee and become lost unless one moves to the realm of action.
What does this important dream symbolize for us? The ladder as a joining instrument with many rungs teaches us of the importance of connecting heaven and earth; it teaches us that we are either ascending or descending, always in a state of change and that we never really remain the same; it teaches us that each of us has a specific rung on the ladder and if we try to grab an inappropriate level or jump too quickly we may fall down.
We read in the dream of the angels first ascending (implying that they are on earth) and then descending, returning as in a circle. Should not the angels have logically come down first, and then return to the heavenly realm? Instead we see here the angelic love of the lower, the earth and G-d’s creations, reaching up to a higher level of development in an attempt to connect to the higher realm but then also bringing the heavenly energy back to earth embracing the lower world with love and care to all members of the earth; and after ascending again they come down once more in a full circle to continue their presence on earth rather than remaining in heaven. Their journey suggests that correct spiritual behavior not only includes the attempt to transcend this world but to remain responsible to care for all creatures on earth. It is tempting to study Torah and feel inspired as a result, and not want to be encumbered by our daily material duties. Our allegiance to heaven, to the optimal imaginations of our psyche, may lead us to also feel judgmental toward others who have not ascended the heavenly ladder. This is a trial for those who ascend and want to remain ensconced in this comfortable ‘high’ space, for if we don’t integrate the higher light and share it with the world, we will alienate all those whom we come into conflict with. We will feel as elitists, or sometimes we may be encumbered by fear that we will be ‘compromised’ by following the lures of the world, so we may be inclined to flee from rather than embrace, our fellow human beings and in the process alienate them with our ‘judgments. Thus, the dream teaches us that at each step of ascent, the lower rung must also be embraced. Judgment must be tempered with compassion, or a split within the self and the world will be created.
We encounter this very problem in our contemporary society. The zealot’s extremism that inhales shards from the upper world and ‘totalizes’ this flavor, unable to compromise and engage with the ‘lower rung’, unable to ‘partialize’ his or her so called idealism polarizes our world rather than uplifting it; when there is no incorporation of the lower rung this zeal, this desire to impose this “upper Light” which can create this ‘utopian, messianic reality’ can be harmful. The ascending striving otherwise so appropriate can become energy that is filled with hate — intolerant of the ‘imperfections’ prevalent in our earthly human world. The extremists have no room for compromise and view compromise as weakness, rather than a necessary virtue that can promote harmony. When the value of the ‘lower rung’ is honored this expansion of thinking can expand the idealistic view and add new insights to previously held ideologies. Openness to change is a requisite for growth.
So, the angels first go up, but equally important they always come down, full circle, to create the true messianic realm on earth. Unless we strive to become integrated this way, acknowledging earth as well as heaven, hatred and ultimately violence lurks beneath “the love of the higher” that is professed to all. One who ascends but does not descend is dangerously disappointed by reality, willing to destroy this world to reach the utopia s/he has experienced in his/her messianic dream. If the ladder is not connected to this earth, the process of construction will only be destructive as it ignores the reality of this earth. The promised land cannot exist in heaven, but must exist here on earth, honoring the natural laws of this earth.
Moreover, those who only descend in a frantic attempt to embrace the lower world are equally dangerous. In an attempt to make this secular, material world, a world of full value while ignoring the spiritual dimension, they inevitably create a world of such emptiness that it self-destructs, robbing us of all of that which elevates us.
In our current society we live in an era of polarization where both political, religious, and cultural differences seem to be stuck on the opposite sides of the ladder. We must find some way meet in the middle, imbibing from those elements that can expand our limited views. There is no perfection in either pole of the ladder, but progress and growth can occur if we take the full journey, the full circle, where we awaken and realize that every rung of the ladder has some wisdom that we need to learn. Let us learn from Jacob’s dream to keep moving, up and down, keep learning, find the rung that inspires us and share that unique message that will help heal the rifts in our world. Slowly but surely, not falling off the ladder we will find the progress that will move us toward a livable, nurturing society, that is a messianic realm here on our earth. May that day come soon and may Shabbat eve bring us the dream that is blessedly meant for us. Shabbat is a taste of what a world of peace can be, a world of fraternity, respect, curiosity to learn from one another, song, and learning of Torah.
Have a most splendid, uplifting Shabbat!