Thursday, November 30, 2006

Vayetze: Realizing the Abstract

In this portion, we find Jacob dreaming of a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. "The angels climb up and down upon him (it)". Simply read, the pronoun refers to the ladder. However, some commentators posit that it refers to Jacob. This would have the angels come down the ladder, at Jacob, in a combative posture. Why would the heavenly messengers be combative towards Jacob?

In order to explain this, we must examine the relationship between heaven and earth. A tension has existed between the heavenly and the earthly since before Adam's sin. The midrash states that, in their very creation, even the trees of Eden disobeyed God's command. There is a continuous discrepancy between the abstract ideals of Heaven, and the practical realities here on Earth. When Man came on scene, this disruption grew. Immediately, Adam and Eve sinned, and it is only by God's grace that the world was not destroyed. Hashem added a dose of loving-kindness to the judgment with which he runs the world.

Since then, it has always been God's charge to Mankind to learn the idealistic abstractions of heaven, and create such a kingdom here on earth. The closer we get to realizing that goal on earth, the closer we come to the ultimate harmony of redemption.

As Jacob sets out on his journey, it is clear that his goal is to raise a perfect family of servants of God. It will be even harder to keep sight of this ideal in Charan, in the home of Lavan. And so, on his way, he has a vision that sears this purpose into his psyche.

The ladder represents the connection from the heavenly sphere to the earthly one. The angels using it symbolize the forces through which God runs the world. And, as the talmud states (Chulin 91a), they ascended and gazed at the visage of Above, and then descended to compare it to matters on earth. This is Man's duty in life; to constantly evaluate the activity in the lower spheres critically, as compared to the ideals of the highest spheres.

And what do the angels find? They find the patriarch of the nation that God has chosen to bear His noble mission to Mankind. Where? He is sleeping upon the holiest of holy grounds. He does not seem to recognize the ground he rests on for what it really is. Immediately, their sense of justice flares. This man is not fit to begin the Jewish nation! However, the next verse brings God into the picture. God is not limited to the present in his analysis. He can see the potential in man despite his present failings. And God Himself "stands over" Jacob, shielding him from the wrath of the angels.

As children of Jacob, we must constantly examine our actions in light of the Torah, God's abstract ideal. However, in doing so, we must never judge ourselves too harshly; we must see the discrepancy between reality and the ideal as motivation to come closer to the ideal. Perhaps this is the resolution to the seeming contradition in Avoth, where on the one hand, we are enjoined to not trust in our own righteousness, but on the other hand, are warned not to view ourselves as true sinners. In this way, may we merit the final redemption, when our world will perfectly reflect the beauty of the Heavenly ideal.