Thursday, November 11, 2010

On the Rungs of Angels Parshat Vayetze:

Parshat Vayetze:
On the Rungs of Angels

Guest Torah Teaching


Sheila Keiter

            In our parsha, Yaakov is on his way to Haran.  He comes to an unnamed location, which the commentators universally identify as Har HaMoriah, the site of the Akeida, where he is forced to stay for the night.  There he has his famous dream, of the ladder reaching toward heaven, of angels ascending and descending, and of God standing above him.  In the dream, God speaks to Yaakov, assuring him of His divine protection, and promising him all of the blessings of the covenant with Avraham and Yitzhak.  (Breishit 28:10-15.)

            The dream is striking, and the obvious question is, what does it mean?  There have been numerous interpretations offered over the centuries.  In fact, Abarbanel goes so far as to catalogue several of them into seven different explanations, and his list is by no means exhaustive.  Some see the ladder as a prophetic symbol of Jewish history, of exile and return.  Others see it as representing God’s connection with Yaakov.  Some explain the ladder in more symbolic terms, as representing different levels of the soul, or levels of the world.  Others see it as teaching about the nature and limitations of God’s angels.  And many, including Abarbanel, see the dream as prophesying about the Beit Hamikdash that will eventually be built on that spot.

            As Abarbanel explains, all of these explanations have value in and of themselves.  However, Abarbanel is unsatisfied with most of them, because so few of them relate directly to Yaakov or to the circumstances that he faced at the time he had his dream.  Given Abarbanel’s criteria for a satisfying explanation, I will attempt to offer an interpretation of my own.

            Who was Yaakov and what was his situation?  At this point in the narrative, we know precious little about Yaakov, other than the fact that he seems to have some devious tendencies.  We know he is a “yoshev ohalim,” one who sits in tents. (Breishit 25:27.)  That really doesn’t tell us much.  There is no indication that he even helps out his father as a shepherd.  Yitzhak has plenty of shepherds, and doesn’t need Yaakov’s aid.  Apparently he doesn’t do much of anything.  He just sits and, perhaps, thinks. 

            At the beginning of our parsha, Yaakov has already been an adult for a number of decades.  (His exact age is unknown, but he may very well be in his sixties or seventies, and certainly over forty.)  Yet he has no vocation.  He is unmarried.  He has no children.  He has done nothing productive with his life.  And now he is on the run, afraid for his life, alone and with nothing with him but his staff.  He has to use rocks for a pillow!  In this context comes the dream. 

            The most striking feature of the dream is the ladder.  Yet it is an odd feature.  Why a ladder?  Any structure allowing the angels to ascend and descend would have been suitable.  Why not a ramp or a staircase?  In fact, some translators and commentators have suggested just that.  The imagery of a ladder is awkward.  When I was young I had a hard time picturing the angels going both up and down on a narrow ladder.  Wouldn’t they bump into each other?  I eventually resolved that problem by picturing the angels going up on one side of the ladder and coming down on the other side.  But I still cringed picturing them stepping on each others’ fingers.  Finally, I concluded that the ladder must have been wider than the typical ladder.  But wouldn’t, as Led Zeppelin suggested, a stairway to heaven be simpler?

            The ladder is deliberate and essential.  In ancient times, as today, ladders were used in construction.  They are necessary tools for building.  Thus, the ladder in Yaakov’s dream represents productivity, ambition, and accomplishment, the very elements missing from his character.  The angels going up and down are busily engaged in their tasks.  They are gainfully employed and busy with activity.  They act in sharp contrast to the stationary Yaakov.  The message is clear.  Yaakov needs to start building his life.  He needs to build a family.

            The ladder was used for another purpose in ancient times.  It was a tool of siege warfare.  Invading forces would use ladders to scale the walls of fortified cities.  This use of the ladder is equally apt to Yaakov’s situation.  Yaakov is being forced to transcend self-imposed barriers and to break through to a new phase of his life.

            This explanation, however, begs another question.  Why should Yaakov be the one to carry on the covenant of Avraham and Yitzhak?  If Yaakov’s deficiency is one of inaction, why not favor Eisav?  In contrast to Yaakov, Eisav is a doer.  Eisav is a hunter.  Eisav is married.  Eisav has children.  Eisav has built a life. 

The ladder is a symbol that can more easily be claimed by Eisav than Yaakov.  It was another hunter, Nimrod, who constructed the first great cities in the post-diluvian world and established a kingdom. (Breishit 10:8-10.)  Eisav is the progenitor of Edom, understood to be Rome, a civilization famed for its construction and conquest.  Yaakov, on the other hand, has none of these qualities and has accomplished absolutely nothing.  Perhaps Yitzhak’s evaluation of his two sons was not the product of senility or sentimentality after all.  Why should God fulfill the covenant through Yaakov?

            Abarbanel offers a wonderful insight into Yaakov’s situation.  Not only is he scared, alone and poor, but he must be filled with self-doubt.  Sure, he received the blessing of the covenant from his father Yitzhak, but he has deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing that was meant for him.  He cannot help but think that these actions were sinful in God’s eyes, and perhaps he has brought a curse on himself rather than a blessing.  Perhaps, through his actions, he has forfeited the Abrahamic blessing.  This insight provides us with the key difference between Yaakov and Eisav.  Yaakov cares enough about the covenantal blessing to fear he has lost it.

            The questions we, the descendants of Yaakov, must ask ourselves, is do we deserve the blessings of the covenant.  Do we care enough about our covenant with God to fear losing it?

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