By Reb David
The famous story of Jacob’s Ladder opens Parshat Vayetze with a dreamscape so poignant that its words resonate in Jewish consciousness. We encounter Jacob on the run from his twin brother, Esau, whom Jacob had tricked out of his birthright:
Jacob … came on 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. 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. God was beside him and said, “I am YHWH, God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac…. All families of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land….” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know!” (Gen. 28:10-17)
Jacob’s exclamation says it all: God was present all along, but it took a mystical experience to rivet Jacob’s awareness. Notice the context: Jacob’s solitude, exposure, vulnerability to the elements, perhaps exhaustion from fleeing Esau’s threat, a dream, and now the first misty moments after waking. Together, they opened Jacob’s mind and heart to the reality of God’s presence. Like Jacob, our awareness can shift when we take ourselves out of our comfort zone.
But it didn’t take long for Jacob’s awareness to begin shifting back. Torah’s very next words signal the shift:
Shaken, [Jacob] said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Gen. 28:18).
The enormity of Jacob’s vision didn’t seem frightening or awesome at first: it just was. Only as Jacob stirred and processed did he feel “shaken.” Already Jacob was starting to descend from the experience of wow and its fullest opening of mind and heart. And then:
Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that site Beth El (House of God)…. Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if [God] protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — then YHWH shall be my God (Gen. 28:19-25).
After naming the place Beth El (House of God) — denoting the powerful transformation that inspires our own synagogue’s name — Jacob downshifted again and began bargaining with God. Suddenly his mystical vision, seeing angels and naming the place House of God weren’t quite enough. Instead, Jacob said that if God will protect him and give food, clothing, protection and deliverance, then Jacob will recognize God’s divinity. Gone (or at least attenuated) was Jacob’s wow and the unconditional acceptance that wow implies. In its place appeared a conditional if.
How fast we forget? How fast we descend from “peak experiences” of open-minded, open-hearted wow of spiritual awareness? How fast we drop back into the bounds of earthly life — physical needs, emotional needs, psychological needs, family, stress, work and traffic?
But is that so bad? And is it really so? It’s telling that Torah presents Jacob not as spiritual adept above the earthly fray but as eminently human — able to access “peak experience” spirituality and then live in this earthly world. Jacob didn’t stay in his “peak experience” dreamscape or return as a Biblical monk. Rather, Jacob came back into earthly life, not denying his human needs but bringing God into them. So while one way to read Jacob’s if statement to God is as a short-sighted forgetting of wow, another is that Jacob embraced God in the four corners of his imperfect and needful earthly life.
How about us? Can we have “peak experiences” of divine wow — whether in dream, prayer, ritual, nature or love — and then re-enter our earthly life’s pace and challenges, bringing God more directly into them? Can we allow ourselves to detach from limited awareness, ascend into wow and then come back? If so, maybe when we inevitably “descend” from “peak experiences,” our return will be just a little bit higher each time.
A poem by e.e. cummings suggests that we are most emotionally real and spiritually alive in childhood, then forget as we age into adult life’s imperfections. He wrote:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
But we needn’t “down we forget as up we grow.” Rather, we have Jacob’s Ladder, on which first ascended and then descended the angels. Jacob’s Ladder reminds us that ascent comes first. We needn’t wait passively for holiness and transformation to come down. We can ascend first… and bring back down a transformed awareness into our daily living. If we do that, then truly any place can be Beth El, a house of God.