Parashat Vayetzei begins on the first night after Jacob has left home fleeing from his brother’s anger and obeying his father’s instruction that he find an appropriate wife. The Torah tells us, “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”
Many years ago I read a d’var Torah by Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, z”l, in which he offered three interpretations of the meaning of the ladder in Jacob’s dream:
• Judaism’s rootedness in the earth,
• The importance of aspiring to Heaven, and
• Communication between Heaven and Earth.
He went on to make a different point, but it occurred to me that these were not different interpretations, but could be read together as a shorthand description of the essential elements of Judaism.
Judaism is surely rooted in the earth, in the real world. We are not meant to focus solely on a future Heaven, but to get our hands dirty in the here and now. Prayer and learning are surely important, but so are earning a living, raising a family, and participating in the larger community. We are not told to turn our backs on the difficult, even ugly aspects of life, but to try to do something about them. We may not be able to cure all the world’s ills, but that doesn’t free us from the obligation to do something to make the world better.
We are to aspire, if not to Heaven, then to “kedushah,” holiness. It is within our power to infuse even the most mundane moments with an awareness of God’s presence and blessing. We can choose to eat simply to satisfy our hunger and fuel our bodies, or we can elevate our meals through kashrut, blessings of gratitude before and after we eat, and the conversations we choose to have at the table. Every meal can be an event that is full of the awareness of God, awe at the marvelous complexity of creation, and a sense that life has meaning beyond mere existence. There is no aspect of human life that cannot become a vehicle for holiness — there is even a bracha to be said after using the bathroom.
There is certainly communication between Heaven and Earth. We speak to God and God speaks to us. It’s not the type of conversation that we read about in the Torah, but it happens all the time. Alone or as part of a shul community we pray, we express as individuals and together our praise, our needs, and our gratitude. We are, in essence, speaking to God. But even more, I love the statement of Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, z”l, the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who said, “When I pray, I talk to God. When I study Torah, God talks to me.” Individually or together, we hear and read the words of Torah and their many interpretations by ancient and modern rabbis and scholars. This is God speaking to us.
Our father Jacob dreamed of a ladder and angels ascending and descending. In time, Jacob would become Israel. And his descendants would take his dream to heart and become the People of Israel.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.