Like neural synapses, the occurrence of I-Thou meetings are dependent on sensitivity to the other and whatever conditions are found at the site of the encounter. This is to say that the decision for relation is made within a particular situation at a particular time rather than being a decision for all times and all places. Andrea Cartwright, “Martin Buber: Poet of the Synapse” (1997)
With Parashah Vayetzei, the epic of familial deceptions spins for another generation. Having “stolen” his brother’s birthright and blessing, Jacob flees to his mother’s relatives in Haran with instructions to find a wife from the clan (Genesis 28: 10-11). En route he stops to rest,
and he dreamed, and, look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it. And, look, the LORD was poised over him and He said, I, the Lord, am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to our seed …. and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through your, and through your seed. And, look, I am with you and I will guard you whereveryou go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.” And Jacob awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know.” And he was afraid and he said, “How fearsome is this place! / This can be but the house of God, / and this is the gate of the heavens.” (Genesis 28:12-17). The Five Books of Moses (2004), Robert Alter transl., pp. 149-50.
Jacob anoints the stone pillow on which he’s had his famous dream, names the place Bethel [Beit El, or House of God], and continues on foot to find his kinfolk in the east (Genesis 28:18-22). He finds them, meets and immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel by another well, and signs on to seven years’ service as a shepherd for his Uncle Laban to marry Rachel. On his wedding night, the men feast and Laban slips Rachel’s older sister Leah into the wedding tent. Jacob works another seven years to achieve Rachel, and then another almost seven more years. During this period of time, he makes his uncle/father-in-law rich with flocks and fathers six sons and a daughter with Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar Zebulun, and Dinah), two sons with Rachel’s servant Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali), two sons with Leah’s servant Zilpah (Gad and Asher)(Genesis 29:1-35-30:1-21).
When Rachel, his favorite wife, finally produces a son (Joseph), Jacob finally seeks to take his household and return to his own family. Jacob and Laban strike a deal to divide the flocks, and Jacob’s share is increased by his skill as a shepherd – and a some divine intervention (Genesis 30: 22-43). Sensing a change of attitude in his father-in-law (and cousins/brothers-in-law), Jacob packs up his family and makes a run for it while the other men are away shearing sheep. Laban has his own dream of a conversation with God (who warns Laban to use care in speaking with Jacob); he and his posse of sons eventually catch up with Jacob’s household, and Laban makes a search for the household gods (terahim) Rachel has taken from her father’s household. Discovery of the theft is avoided when Rachel feigns “the way of women” in order to avoid being searched. Jacob and Laban part after making a peace pact and marking boundaries (Genesis 31:1-54-32:1).
This week’s study reviewed the usual approaches to Vayetzei: the imperfection of the patriarchs (and their extended family), the nature of the angels in Jacob’s dream (Rashi in URJ), the conditional nature of Jacob’s commitment to God (Rashi), how the evening prayer service tradition derives from these events , the distinctions drawn between the sister/wives Leah and Rachel (Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). I’ve noticed how the wife-sister theme is expanded: now the wife is multiplied to wives who are, in fact sisters! I expect that others more knowledgeable than me have addressed this, but I haven’t found their work yet.
My interest in the philological, esoteric, and popular, is peaked by recent commentary on the translation of the Hebrew sullam as “dream” instead of “ramp”.
I am not surprised that Robert Alter (p. 149, n. 12 ) and others observe that Jacob’s dream is consistents with other Mesopotamian religious motifs, including the famous ziggurat at Ur (the ancient Sumerian temple, circa 4000 BCE, rebuilt in 6th c BCE (link), whose many ramps and terraced landings stretch to the heavens. Not surprisingly, the conception of rising approaches to the divine domain is shared by others, even as far as the Matankol people of Papua New Guinea.
Like Noah’s ark, Jacob’s ladder pervades culture past and present. In the ancient world, the ladder was a typical tool of work – as in (3rd c CE), or used instead of stairwells in residential interiors of antiquity (Qazrin, Golan Heights). or building/labor? (1, 2) ladder to temple? or to climb to land from waterway? (1) employed for travel of deities in Buddhist theology as well (Descent of the Thirty-three from the Tavatimsa Heaven. Ancient images of ladders associated with military sieges (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Modernist painters conceived of as an escape ladder (L’échelle de l’évasion, 1940 by abstract artist Joan Miro and modern images, of spiritual journey? (Lawrence Jacob’s On the Way, 1990).
As a metaphor for spiritual journey, Jacob’s ladder finds modern expression in an annual folk festival on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), Israel. In the maritime world, Jacobs’ ladder is a miners’ ladder, and a marine ladder (made of rope, or chain with wooden or metal rungs, used when neither a walkway nor a straight ladder can be used to board a vessel). In the scientific realm, Jacob’s ladder is an electrical device (watch one here!). It is metaphor for steep places in close proximity to Heaven. Thus the Jacob’s Ladder peak and trail in Derbyshire Peak, England.
Since I am a musician, I am already familiar with the ubiquity of Jacob’s ladder as a topic in popular song, spiritual, ballad, and labor anthem. I am also a quilter, and have worked with the popular traditional Jacob’s Ladder quilting block (or modern abstract view). That the hymn tune has been printed on fabric for quilting is an unexpected find. I can well understand the small step necessary to link the Jacob’s ladder block in Harriet Power’s famous Bible Quilt with the quilt block as a sign of the underground railroad, a “ladder” to freedom (source). That Jacob’s ladder is featured on a Freemason’s goblet (c. 1830) is especially intriguing. Jacob’s Ladder is also familiar children’s string game, wooden puzzle or (Victorian) teaching tool (Victorian toy). In the world of cinema the ladder has appeared in both dream and nightmare: in technicolor biblical epics (1, 2) of the 1960’s-70’s, or the nightmare of the post-war (Viet Nam) by Adrian Lyne (1998) (starring Danny Aiello, Tim Robbins).
In Jewish tradition, there are few Jewish images of angels and Jacob’s ladder for those who scour the internet for useful sources. Ladders appear in images of Exodus’ narrative of construction during slavery in Egypt (Barcelon Haggadah (14th c). Jacob’s ladder appears in Passover Haggadah (Golden Haggadah, 14th Catalan ), as a birth amulet, a 19th c household amulet, and a contemporary papercut by Naomi Spiers. The ladder has been used to describe Maimonides’ eight degrees, or rungs, of tzedakah (charity) (here), and a modern Jewish interpretation explores the ladder as a projection of emotional states.
As usual, I wind up taking Marc Chagall’s work as a point of departure for serious study. Chagall’s many images of Jacob’s Dream (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) typically conceive of the events taking place in an open space, much as Beth El is described in Genesis. Yet as with the aqedah (sacrifice of Isaac), Chagall produced a singular image that provokes a new understanding of the narrative. Here, the angels and ladder exist in urban environs; the angels appear to climb above distinctly human structures.
I wonder about the dream: why angels, why a ladder? Angels have wings and shouldn’t need ladders. In spite of a Chabad Orthodox reading that anyone can get to heaven, without need of wings (just as angels don’t need ladders), I wonder about the imagery of Jacob’s dream. I am reminded of past and present ladders, past and present walls, and past and present angels …. the efforts of so many to survive the experience of walls, to scale their limits.
Walls and fences confined the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto (Lithuania), and now confine the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank.
Jews, and now Palestinians, have participated in building the walls of their own ghettos. Jews, and now Palestinians, have found themselves scaling ghetto walls to find the means of livelihood and survival.
Ghettoized Jewish children found ways through walls to find food and family, and so do Palestinian children today in the occupied West Bank. Jewish and Palestinian women have been similarly challenged by their ghetto walls.
Jews and Palestinians have imagined routes to freedom, in the form of grafitti: whether as “self-help” in the Warsaw ghetto’s imagined postal stamp (or other forms of creativity in the Holocaust), or West Bank visions of postal stamp balloon airlift, windows, curtains, screens, or other apertures.
This week’s Torah portion leads me to the lives reflected in these visual records, and these images – documenting parallel experiences of particular lives at particular times – clarify important moral connections prompted by the parshah. This clarity makes it difficult to distinguish between the eventual resistance of Jewish residents of Warsaw ghetto and the Palestinian intifidas. Not just Jacob, but all of us, might dream of angels – and ourselves, climbing ladders and walls divinely, or humanly, made.
Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. Edward Said (1994)
(painted by Suleiman Mansour)
As always, all images used in this essay should be “live”, and a click on the image should provide access to its original source.