Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayetze 5776
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder
On the run from a furious brother who is plotting his demise, Yaakov finally falls to the ground in exhaustion and allows himself to sleep. His mind still racing, he wonders how the situation has spun so far out of control. Only yesterday, things had seemed perfect, even idyllic; only yesterday, he had been part of a family, but today tears and screams drown out all civil communication. They had managed to get along, despite their differences; but now – chaos. He had been put in an impossible situation. Should he respect his mother or his father? No child should ever be forced to make such a choice. There was no easy, clear solution: Obeying his mother meant deceiving his father. Honoring his father meant defying his mother. And then there was the matter of his brother, who wanted him dead.
And all this, over some blessings. Were they really worth this drama? Were they worth dying for? Moreover, who was to say that ill-gotten blessings would ‘work’? This was not some magical spell that merely needed to be uttered in order to bring about the desired result; this was a prayer, meant to open the very heavens and bring about Divine aid and abundance. Could blessings attained surreptitiously bring about such results? What if God did not agree with his mother, and the stolen blessings would prove worthless?
As Yaakov drifted off to sleep (or, perhaps, not really sleep), he floated into an alternative consciousness. A new reality swept over him; he had an epiphany. All at once, everything he saw was holy, beautiful, awe-inspiring. The heavens opened, and he saw the “entrance,” a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels climbing up and down. Yaakov’s first reaction might well have been relief, even joy: God had not rejected him because of his behavior. Quite the opposite: He was granted revelation. As his eyes followed the ladder up toward heaven, he saw a glimpse of images that were so holy, they were beyond imagination.
And then, Yaakov heard a voice he had never heard before - yet the sound was strangely familiar and unmistakable: God spoke to him, introduced Himself, and promised him great things: First, that the land he was lying on would one day be his. Second, God assured him that he would have many children who would burst forth in every direction, and, third, that God would protect him. And then, the voice was still.
If we consider this revelation, first in terms of the implication that God had chosen Yaakov, and additionally in terms of the blessings that make up the content of the revelation, we might expect Yaakov to have reacted with unqualified, unmitigated joy. And yet, Yaakov’s response was far more circumspect; his words reflect a certain dread or fear behind the awe he expressed. Apparently, the content of God’s communication gave Yaakov cause for worry, not because of what He said, but because of what He did not say. Something was missing, and recent events make it clear what Yaakov had hoped to hear but did not.
Yitzchak had given Yaakov two separate sets of blessings: One set were blessings that had always been intended for him. As he sent him away to begin his journey, Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, knowing precisely whom he was, with the “blessings given to Avraham:” The Promised Land and a great nation of descendants to inherit it. This blessing was echoed in the promises Yaakov had just been given by God Himself. On the other hand, the blessing he acquired by dressing up as his brother Esav, the blessing he had taken surreptitiously, the blessing that was so important to his mother, promised physical bounty, abundance and power. When God spoke to Yaakov, He was silent regarding this blessing - and that silence was deafening; Yaakov heard it loud and clear. The blessings for great wealth were not repeated; apparently, they were not in his future.
When Yaakov awakes, he makes declarations and promises: He will build a house for God, and if God gives him the smallest modicum of physical security – clothes on his back, bread on his plate – he will, in turn, give one tenth back to the Almighty. Suddenly, for Yaakov, the blessings he had gone to such great lengths to acquire are no longer important. The physical world that had seemed so critically important pales in contrast with the sublime vision he has just been shown. Yaakov suddenly understands that he can be content to live his life with only a bare minimum of physical wealth - and he vows to dedicate even that minimal wealth to God. Yaakov sees the ladder, with its feet on the ground and its head in heaven, and he draws a remarkable conclusion: He himself can be like that ladder. He can live simultaneously in the physical and spiritual worlds. He can bridge the gap, and live his life as a quest to achieve spirituality and holiness, continually climbing up the ladder from earth to heaven. At that moment, he vows to devote his physical resources to his quest for holiness, and to climb that ladder just as he saw the angels do.
With this realization, Yaakov can continue on his journey. Only when he understands that wealth and power are not the true blessing is he able to travel forth and to succeed. Now that he fully understands the true nature and significance of the blessings he received from his father, he becomes worthy of the blessings his mother instructed him to acquire. The physical bounty with which he was blessed becomes a tool in the service of the greater blessings of spirituality and holiness. Wealth is not the real gift; rather, true blessing is born of figuring out how to take the physical stuff God gives us and use it to construct our own ladder to heaven. A blessed life is one spent climbing the ladder and transforming physical bounty into spiritual wealth.
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