Parsha Vayetze begins with Jacob. He is running away from home and afraid and exhausted, beginning his journey into homelessness, which will last for 22 years. Our patriarch goes to sleep and has a dream in which he envisions a ladder connecting earth to heaven. The simple message of the story for Jacob, and us, is that what we do here on earth reaches up into the Heaven. It means that we can affect many worlds and our actions have effects on many different levels. Too many of us believe that what we do affects only ourselves. Jacob’s ladder comes to teach us how we are all interconnected and related.
Can there be a more poignant message for us in the year of covid-19 ?
While the origin of the virus and its deadly impact is not of human origin, we, the people, can control its spread and can support the scientific efforts to find treatment and vaccines.
Jacob’s ladder dream takes place as Jacob is fleeing his brother’s wrath, which was sparked by Jacob’s cunning action. How often do we act only from our own narrow place, our own narcissistic place, and forget or not care about the impact on others and on all levels of existence on earth and in Heaven? Can any of us honestly deny that the impact of natural disasters are exacerbated by societal neglect and individual indifference? Is this also not true of the societal unrest here in America and around the world this past year?
A second lesson that our sages see in this dream narrative is the significance of the angels of God who are going up and down the ladder. How often do we forget to be grateful for the angels that help us? How many times have we been in need of an angel and felt forgotten or betrayed just because we did not look around us and notice the angels that are with us?
These past months, as the covid-19 pandemic has limited my ability to socially interact with so many family and friends, I have become more aware than ever before that the real messengers of God do not come down from heaven as in the movies, but rather they are the people next to us and across the table from us; the ones in whom we see the Divine and who in turn see the Divine within me.
The Kotzker Rebbe once rhetorically asked: “Where do you find God?” His answer was: “Wherever and whenever you invite God in.”
This is the message I find in Jacob’s awareness when he awoke from his dream and proclaimed: “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”
One might ask how could Jacob, the inheritor of the spiritual mantle of Isaac and Abraham, not know that God was in the place? Perhaps in the spirit of one of Jacob’s descendants Sigmund Freud, it was due to the fact that the “I” that Jacob uses twice in this verse is the “I” of the ego that blinds him to the presence of others both human and Divine.
As the parsha progresses and the Jacob story continues to the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob continues to undergo a spiritual growth. While never ceasing to be Ya’akov, the shrewdest of our patriarchs, Jacob, the father and grandfather will become Israel, the etymology of which is “ God wrestler.” As a parent and grandparent he comes to represent, for me, an example of what another of Jacob’s descendants, Martin Buber, taught in his book “I and Thou,” written 100 years ago. We only come to truly understand ourselves in relationship with another, be that another person, or the Eternal Other, which I understand as God.
I’m writing this d’var Torah as I sit in Berlin, Germany, where I have been blessed to be present for the birth of a fourth grandchild. In the year of covid-19, getting permission to enter Germany and traveling here safely and responsibly was a true journey for Ann and me. The multiple covid tests and quarantine procedures are a story for another day. Being able to be present and help our children, Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz and his wife Rabbi Rebecca Blady, care for their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and their newborn daughter has been a true Shehecheyanu moment for us.
As the covid-19 pandemic continues to be a threat to life and health, Judaism commands us to limit our social interactions and take safety measures not just to protect ourselves but all the others, loved ones and strangers, with whom we interact. For me, the story of Jacob’s ladder is a reminder that despite the ups and downs of life, we must never forget that wherever we find ourselves, “God is in this place,” and we, like Jacob and his ancestors and descendants have the opportunity and the responsibility to be God’s voice and hands in the world.