Sometimes you just need a ladder, because the view from the ground is not good. You need to climb out of the fray, out of the noise, out of all that weighs you down.
And this has been a week of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath. Weighed down by sadness and fear and anger. What happened last Shabbat in Paris captures our imagination and it won't let go. And today's attacks on tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.
And all of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn't possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.
Eighty years ago this country debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. (It did not.) And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I'm sure it was not lost on you.
So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?
We dream a ladder. That's what we do. It's what Jacob did, in this week's Torah portion. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob's moment was not so dissimilar to ours.
So Jacob, in his flight, reaches an in-between place. A border, between Canaan and Haran, between home and unknown, between past and future. And something happens to him there. He stops and pays attention to Hamakom. The place. But also Hamakom, the Ubiquity of God. In the first verse of this episode, Hamakom is mentioned three times:
Jacob reached Hamakom and lingered all night because the sun had set. He took from among of the stones of Hamakom and put them at his head. And he lay down in Hamakom to sleep. [Genesis 28:11]
So there is Jacob, sleeping literally (and laterally) on the ground, and figuratively lying within an awareness of God's presence.
And as we all know, Jacob dreams. A doozy of a dream. He sees a ladder, arcing down toward the earth with its head anchored in heaven. And angels ascending and descending.
Our sages and mystics have speculated about every element of this dream. The number of stones. How big is the ladder? How many rungs? How many angels? How big is an angel's wingspan? Some have said Jacob himself was the ladder; others that each of us is a ladder, some that the ladder is the double helix of a DNA molecule.
And just about everyone gets caught up on the fact that the angels ascend and descend. That is, they start below and climb up, when we'd expect angels to begin in heaven and climb down. Some sages speculated that since this was a territorial border, Jacob is witnessing the angels of Canaan who had been escorting him climb back to heaven to clock out, while the angels of Haran descend to accompany him the rest of the way. The great commentator Ibn Ezra points out that reading this as simple plot is useless. The very word sulam, "ladder", is an anagram of semel, "symbol." Angels are climbing a ladder of symbolism - a wonderful post-modern twist for the 12th Century. Ibn Ezra saw the angels as emerging from us - in the form of our prayers. They ascend to heaven, and then God responds with salvation, in the form of angels climbing back down.
So anyway, there is Jacob lying there, his body asleep. If we were standing next to him, all we would witness would be his breathing. Breath out, breath in: the breath, neshimah, that so often in our tradition is equated with the soul itself, the neshamah. It is a breath of soul, our own spark of divinity ascending to heaven, and divinity is pouring back down. An exchange of holiness not unlike the circulation of oxygen and carbon dioxide between us and the trees.
So wait - breathing with the trees is a good metaphor too. So why is the ladder necessary? Can't Jacob dream a different metaphor for a change? Maybe the answer is that the obvious thing about the ladder is in fact the obvious thing about the ladder: it's tall. While Jacob is pinned to the ground by gravity, the holiness that circulates through him gets a higher, better, longer view. It escapes the particulars of Jacob's life and Jacob's fears and Jacob's habitual thinking. And perched above those things, it has a chance to bring back something fresh.
Over the past few weeks I've been explicitly reminded several times of a famous quote of Einstein's: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." And a similar teaching of the Piasetzner Rebbe who would say that bringing about repair in the world of action or the world of speech requires first ascending to olam hashtikah, the world of silence.
In other words, we might not know yet what the answer is to the troubles around us, but responding the old way, with military strikes and border fences and political grandstanding is not going to do it. I think we all know that, but are afraid to open up to the possibility of something new. So Einstein would say to change our thinking. The Piasetzner would say to spend some time in the world of silence. And Jacob our patriarch would say to send angels up a ladder for a better view.
I don't know what our angels will see from up there -- what we will see from up there. But I know we will be free to see things above our fear. From a few rungs up we might see back to an age not too long ago when Jews and Muslims walked arm in arm in the gardens of Spain, sharing music and art and speculations about God; and how we fared so much better there than we ever did in the ghettos of the Christian north. Maybe from a couple rungs up, no longer held down by the gravity of ISIS and Israeli-Palestinian bitterness, we can remember that this is true too.
Maybe from a few rungs up, we might look at our infatuation with images of violence in our entertainment and it will all seem silly and mystifying, and we will gather new ideas on how to make a world in which violence is rare and certainly not a way to sell products. A world where the custom is to meet fire with peace.
And maybe from a few rungs up we might rediscover that compassion is a strength, not a weakness. And this discovery will enable us to dismiss the attempts of terrorists and politicians to engage our hatred, and instead we will take the highest, most loving road, welcoming and helping refugees in a way that honors our ancestors and serves as a tikkun for this country's failure to welcome them in their moment of greatest need.
And maybe from a few rungs up we will not be frightened of change. Because we will see that change is part of the great unfolding and nothing will stop it. And this country we live in and all countries will be different just as they are different now. And the question "what's next" will not be one of fear but of anticipation.
Maybe from a few rungs up we can see the divine spark in others. We can see their angels looking back at us. And our angels can together repair the tattered field of holiness. And they can become heralds, their words skipping across the mountaintops with messages of peace.
This is just a dream. But on the other hand, this is a dream! Change might not be quick. Jacob dreamed his dream and still lived in fear of his brother for another 20 years before crossing back to the land of his birth where he and his long-feared brother fall on each other's necks and weep.
But on the other hand, in the biblical imagination, twenty years? Bupkis.
So that's it. I have no particular outcome to offer. Just a process to propose. Find your border spot, like Jacob did, the place of your boundaries, the edge of your comfort zone, and lay your head down on the rocks of Hamakom, the awareness God's presence even in the uncomfortable place, and dream. Ladders. And angels.
And when the world below grabs at you -- and it will try -- defy gravity.
Thank you to Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg for bringing the Piasetzner text, and to Esther Azar for connecting it to Einstein.