Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him, and God said, "I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Genesis 28:10-16)
As I look at this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, I find myself returning to the familiar and touching passage above. Jacob has left Haran for Beer-sheba and stops for the night to rest. In his dream a ladder reaches from the earth to the heavens, with angels traveling up and down on it. God then appears beside Jacob and blesses him with promises of land, descendants, and protection on his journey. When Jacobs wakes, he proclaims, "Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!" How often have we found ourselves in the presence of God at the most unexpected of times, in the most unexpected of places?
When I was a child, I was an eternal optimist. I was as certain of God's existence as I was of the leaves on the trees and the waves in the ocean. If the sun rose each day and a rainbow occasionally graced the sky, God existed. That was my faith, pure and simple. When I got older, I had to confront some painful facts and difficult situations, which raised questions that sent me on a tumultuous spiritual journey: How could the God of my childhood explain the Holocaust? Prejudice? Anti-Semitism? Sickness? September 11? Where had the God of my childhood gone? So often when I have most needed to experience God's presence and to feel God's compassion and God's mercy, I have instead felt rejected and alone. How many times have you pleaded with God and not received an answer?
When the images of Jacob's dream are presented to us, we are told that the angels of God ascended the ladder before going down toward the earth. What is the purpose of the ladder? Is it the means by which Jacob's prayers reached the heavens so that God could hear his pleas? Did the angels ascend in order to return to Jacob and bestow upon him God's blessing? Perhaps each of us has a ladder like Jacob's that is just waiting for us to grab its nearest rung.
Most of us will always be on a spiritual search to define God in a way that best suits us and illuminates our lives. But while we search, we must keep in mind that at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places, that still small voice can be heard and God surely dwells where we are.
BY THE WAY…
Esther the Hidden One interjects: "We need to remember that ladders lead not only from earth up to heaven but also from heaven down to earth. As we leap up to reach the bottom rung of the heavenly ladder, God lowers the ladder with an outstretched hand. And when we cannot grasp even the lowest rung, She-Who-Dwells-Within reaches down and meets us where we are." (Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Women's Commentary on the Torah, San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers, 1998)
In our home, the children were put to bed at night with some conversation and a prayer. One evening my daughter, then six or seven, asked the perennial question "Where is God?" following the prayer proclaiming God, the Lord as One. In her book Today's Children and Yesterday's Heritage, Sophia Fahs, a thoughtful religious educator, suggested a game to answer the "where" question. I decided to adapt her game with my daughter. I asked her to touch my arms. She did. I asked her to touch my chest. She did. I asked her to touch my nose. She did. I then asked her to touch my love. She stopped for a moment and reached out to touch my chest and my arms, pointing out that she had already done so. "Now touch my love." She could not. She smiled. The exercise was an introduction to a deeper understanding of faith. (Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994)
And how are you to know where that [the place in which God will find you] will be? Or how are you to determine where it may be but by being ready for it always? (John Ruskin, quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, New York: UAHC Press, p. 197)
When have you felt surprised by your experience of the Divine Presence?
When do you most often find yourself experiencing moments of spiritual affirmation?
As Jews, is it our role to await the appearance of God's ladder, or do we have an obligation to seek it out?
In what ways do you reach for the rungs of Jacob's ladder? How do you enable others to do so?
In what situations do you ask for God's help?
Do you think that God is responsible for the bad things that happen in the world?
How can you be God's partner in tikkun olam?
Yonni Limmer Wattenmaker, RJE, is the director of education at Temple Shaaray Tefila, Bedford Corners, NY.