By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
Following the stealing of his brother Esav’s blessing from their father Yitzhak, at the behest of his mother Rivka, Yaakov escaped the threat of violence sworn by his brother and retreated to the land his mother came from.
On his journey of several weeks, Yaakov had an important dream that symbolized to him his mission in life — a ladder stretching between the earthly world and the spiritual universe, with “angels going up and down.”
For the medieval philosopher Moshe ben Maimonides (the Rambam), angels were forms of intelligence through which divinity is expressed and guides us. Human consciousness is seen as a form of an “angel” — containers of Godly awareness and guidance. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a contemporary rabbi, writes poetically that:
Angels are another name for feelings
When we love and act with kindness
We create angels of love and kindness …
When we hate and act with violence
We create angels of hate and violence.
It is our job to fill our world with angels of love
Messengers of kindness
That link people together as one family.
Yaakov awakes from his dream in awe of the Place (hamakom — another name in our tradition for divinity) he has been in, stating that “God was in or is this place, and I, I didn’t get it!”
We elevate this moment as one of the grand spiritual awakenings in the Torah and pivotal moments in Yaakov’s life. The vision of angels going up to heaven and back down, and God bearing witness to it all is transcendent. Yet even though these — angels, messengers and the message itself — produce some awe and gratitude in Yaakov, they do not change his basic character immediately. Waking from this dream he remains Yaakov — the “heel grabber,” the “negotiator.”
Meeting Rachel and then Leah is a key to his true transformation. Love will do what a solitary vision could not. When Yaakov returns to this place 20 years later, he engages with a divine messenger again, now able to strive for integrity and truth and wrestle a blessing and a new name out of the encounter — Yisrael.
In our world today, the societies we have developed, and even our faith traditions, do not on their own guarantee that we are able to translate our technological, economic or scientific advances into actions for the greater good of all. Loving each other, breaking down barriers and walls between us, caring for the earth and uniting for justice and countering hate in all forms, are ways we can build a stairway to heaven in this place — right where we are.
Just as Yaakov needed to learn to be in loving relationship without trickery and deceit, we, too, must wrestle with our own angels and fears to develop caring and compassionate relationships on the road to becoming who we can truly be.
In light of the horrific anti-Semitic murder of 11 Jews gathered for prayer and community at the Tree of Life/Dor Hadash synagogue in Pittsburgh, the killing of two African-Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky and the mass shooting in a bar in California all within one week, many of us have been reeling in grief and pain. Many of us, myself included, have personal connections in the Pittsburgh community, and have been immersed in communal conversations about how to move forward together.
During these times, we have rallied together, with the support of our brothers and sisters from all faiths and communities, to keep our hearts and sacred spaces responsibly open. Authentic relationships are being formed and deepened across the board.
Ultimately, it is these relationships that will carry us toward living the dream of peace and a meaningful and sustainable life for all. We need not wait another generation, as Yaakov had to, to come back to the same place and wrestle a blessed outcome of a unifying vision for all humanity and the world.
Let us be strong in our values and lift each other up to become the angels that move both heaven and earth, with the actions and commitments of our own hands and hearts, and the loving sacred relationships we build together along the way.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi at Mishkan Shalom. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.