MIND THE GAP
Rabbi David Walk
As humanity marched (some might say 'stumbled') from primitive communities towards more advanced civilizations, many critical ideas were represented by powerful and perceptive metaphors. An outstanding example of this phenomenon was in the development of judicial norms. More advanced societies wanted to express their dedication to a system of fair justice. So, many ancient cultures symbolized fairness in the judicial system with a magnificent symbol readily recognizable to all of their citizens, namely the balance scale. This utilitarian device became identified with a sincere effort to carefully weigh all factors before rendering a judgment. This great symbol was noticed in the very heavens as the astrological sign Libra which dominates the skies during the Hebrew month of Tishre, when we believe the whole world stands before God in judgment. The balance scale adorns the statue of Lady Justice which stands before many of the greatest courthouses in the world, including the US Supreme Court and the Old Bailey in London. However, this week's Torah reading presents us with another magnificent example of an ancient metaphor which still informs our perception of reality, and that symbol is, of course, the ladder of Jacob's dream.
Ya'akov was running away from Be'er Sheva and his brother's murderous intentions to the ancestral home in Padan Aram. He stops for the night and in his sleep a dream intervenes and 'behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven and he observed angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and at its top stood God (Genesis 28:12-13).' This device, of course, represents the connection between earth and heaven. It's crucial for the religious personality to believe that there is a way for us to communicate with and be influenced by the celestial realm. But what are the criteria for accessing this connectivity?
A few years ago I asked some classes at Bi-Cultural Day School here in Stamford, CT a variation on that question. I asked, 'How many rungs are on this ladder?' The number of rungs would represent the method we would use to achieve this connectivity. The Midrash suggests that there are four rungs. One for each of the major civilizations of the ancient world who tried to destroy us, Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome. In other words, we communicate with heaven through the forces of historical change. But the kids were very clever. Some suggested ten steps for the Ten Commandments, others thought 613 for the number of mitzvoth enumerated in the Torah, and the number 7 billion was proposed, representing the idea that every human on earth is a unique pathway to heaven. However I believe that there is a famous Jewish custom which puts forward another numerical candidate.
We have a custom at most funerals (with certain exceptions, like dates commemorating happy occasions) to have the pallbearers stop seven times between the hearse and the grave site. We count the stops with a verse from Psalm 91, 'For He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your paths (verse 11).' Trust me, in Hebrew there are seven words. We understand this verse to mean that God sends angels to accompany the deceased on that final journey from earth to heaven. We can therefore understand this short excursion from vehicle to grave as representing a handoff of the deceased from earthly escorts to heavenly ones. So, it would seem that there are seven steps or stages between earth and heaven.
This shouldn't surprise us, because in most systems of Jewish mysticism there are seven sefirot or spiritual steps from earth to heaven. These stages correspond to the seven character traits represented by the great leaders or shepherds of our nation. Many of us recognize them as the Ushpizin guests to our sukkah. These are Avraham (chesed, kindness), Yitzchak (gevurah, courage), Ya'akov (tiferet, splendor), Moshe (netzach, eternity), Aharon (hod, majesty), Yosef (yesod, fundamental righteousness) and David (malchut, royalty). In many Kabbalistic systems there are three more sefirot, but they reside on the heavenly side of the divide between our realms. They are chachma (wisdom), bina (understanding) and da'at (knowledge). Of course these are the levels of Divine intellect. Okay, I access my portal to heaven through these attributes, but how do I know how to utilize these character traits? That's probably the simplest question to answer so far. I emulate the behavior of the avatars of these traits. I gain chesed by studying and copying the behavior of Avraham and so on up the scale.
This not only makes sense but is reinforced by a famous Midrash. The verse describing the action around the ladder has a grammatical glitch. It says that the angels ascend and descend bo. This Hebrew word can mean either 'on it' or 'on him'. So, the Midrash suggest that the angels aren't climbing the ladder but are scrambling up our illustrious forebear. What does that mean? It means that the bridge between this world and heaven are these great Zadikim. The Kabblah often refers to the Patriarchs as merkava or chariot. I believe that this is a similar idea. The chariot is the vehicle for transporting and broadcasting God's message to the world, while the ladder is the tool for connecting us with that spiritual realm. How do our prayers and petitions reach heaven? Through this portal, and our spiritual giants are not only the gate keepers (not to be confused with Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters) but the means by which earthly messages can ascend to the gate.
I find this idea both inspiring and challenging. We read these stories of our illustrious grandparents every year because we can be motivated to emulate them. Nachmanides (Ramban, 1194-1273) avers that the entire book of Genesis is permeated with the theme ma'aseh avot siman l'banim (the deeds of the Patriarchs are a guide post to the offspring). We should see ourselves as the postmen for this world delivering our prayers to heaven and bringing Divine messages back here. The ladder is a metaphor and symbol of how we can bridge the gap between our lives and our most exalted aspirations.