When Italian castles stopped being fortresses and began to serve simply as homes for the nobility, the most important feature of the architecture was the main staircase, and the grander the stairway the more impressive the castle. Furthermore, the mark of a visitor’s status was a function of how far down the staircase your host came to greet you. So if you had to walk all the way up to meet the Lord of the Manor or your host came down some number of steps to meet you, you got an instant read on your social standing and status.
In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a sulam mutazav artza, a ladder, a stairway, a staircase reaching from heaven to earth. Angels are going up and down on it. Jacob, on the other hand, is always depicted sleeping on the ground, down at the bottom of the ladder. But where is God at this point in the dream?
The Hebrew says, adonai nitzav alav, which could be translated God was ‘on it’, that is at the top of the ladder, or the same phrase could also be understood to mean ‘besides him’, meaning God was now standing besides Jacob. So depending on the translation and applying the principle of Italian castle staircases to our Torah reading, Jacob was either the most insignificant of visitors ushered into the presence of a God who stood infinitely far removed at the very top of a very long ladder. Or Jacob was the most important guest God had entertained perhaps since Adam and Eve because we see that God had descended all the way to the very bottom of the ladder to welcome his visitor into the divine presence. Either way heaven and earth are connected, but God is either - to put it in the words of the American Reform prayer book – “farther than the farthermost star or closer than the air we breathe.” So which was it?
Well I would like to suggest that it was really both, and the choice of the Hebrew phrase is brilliantly deliberate.
Think of it this way. Jacob had deceived his father and wrested the blessing from his older brother Esau. He had previously managed to get the birthright by similarly questionable means. He is running from his brother’s revenge. He stops for the night in the middle of nowhere, puts a rock under his head and sleeps like a baby. Alone, in a place beset by brigands, robbers and wild beats - yet there he is fast asleep. But when God shows up and promises him all these seemingly good things, then Jacob is shaken, afraid, terrified.
How is it that Jacob could sleep so soundly before the dream? My sense is that up to this point Jacob was sure he had gotten away with it. He had acted in a morally and ethically questionable, even objectionable way and it had all paid off. He had cheated his brother, bamboozled his father and the plan had worked. Or so it seemed. But now God shows up and says, u’shmartechah, which on the one hand means I will guard, protect you. But it also means I’m on to you, I’m observing you, I have my eye on you, and I won’t let go of you.
Then God says v’ hashevotechah – and I will bring you back – on the one hand the Hebrew means ‘return you to this place’. But hashevotechah is also the word Hebrew uses for repentance, to cause you to repent. In other words, God also says I will expect and assist you in your moral development. Jacob, God says, You are going to become a different, a better person. If it’s the last thing you do. If it’s the last thing I do. And that’s what scares the hell out of Jacob.
In Judaism, our understanding of what it means to be moral and ethical is rooted in the sacred teachings of our tradition. The God who stands at the top of the ladder, the God we call Adonai who is fully beyond our imagining, is nonetheless the source of our sense of right and wrong and the ground of our moral and ethical understanding. But that God who is simultaneously standing with us at the bottom of the ladder, next to us, within us is also the source of our ability to hope, to grow, and to become better than we are.
We are not meant to imitate Jacob’s questionable ethical actions and standards of morality. We are intended rather to use them to question and instruct ourselves with respect to our own. Jacob does not get to make up what is right and wrong. We are supposed to use these ancestral exemplars of a less than perfect humanity not as an absolute model to emulate but rather as a mirror with which to evaluate how well we are doing in our own spiritual and ethical journey of becoming. The Jew who follows the virtuous teachings of the tradition will more likely develop a moral character that will be seen and understood to be a blessing.
In Judaism, righteousness is a possibility not a guarantee. As God says to us as God said to Jacob: I am with you, to encourage you, to assist you, and to put a forgiving and understanding arm around you if and when you need me. Now go forth to blessing.