Jacob’s Ladder (abridged version of a sermon written for November 28 Parashat Vayetze)
In many galleries devoted to biblical art, one might find a depiction of Jacob’s ladder.
In the book of Genesis, Jacob has a dream: he sees a ladder reaching to the very heavens; “And
behold the angels of the Lord ascending and descending”.
And Jacob hears the voice of God renewing the covenant of Abraham.
It’s a striking image. It hints at a moment where heaven and earth kiss. It suggests a world where one could ascend the ladder and reach the very heavens, or where one could bring heaven down to earth.
But while the image leaves us with a visceral feeling of holiness, the role of the ascending and descending angels are not clear. One midrash connects Jacob’s dream with our people’s history of oppression.
In order to understand this teaching, it is important to remember it reflected a time when Israel was being oppressed by Rome.
According to this teaching, each nation has its own “ministering angel”. Jacob had a vision of the angels of four nations that would eventually oppress our people. They were more like demons.
He saw the angel of Babylonia ascend the ladder (rise) and then descend (decline). Then he saw the ministering angel of Persia climb and fall. Same with the angel of Greece.
Finally, the ministering angel of Rome climbed the ladder. But he did not descend. Jacob trembled “perhaps he (Rome) will never fall”. And God reassured him “do not fear my servant Jacob, Rome too, will descend the ladder of history”.
Had the midrash been written today, perhaps there would have been other names on the list. From the ghetto to the gulag, from Spain to Auschwitz, we have survived our oppressors.
As Jacob’s namesake, Jacob’s dream and this rabbinic interpretation speaks to me not only as a Jew, but as an American. America, too has had its demons ascending and descending the ladder of history.
Our story has seen the demon of slavery ascend and descend. We have seen Jim Crow likewise climb and fall. Misogyny and homophobia, all part of our history, all in the process of descending the ladder.
We struggle to reach the apex, to be the greatest democracy, to be the shining light, the “city on the hill”.
As I write this, our nation is hurting. We are being threatened both physically (Covid-19) and spiritually. Of all the nations of the world it is America, the richest nation, that is suffering the highest number of illness and death.
And even as the plague continued to ascend, our very democracy was being threatened by those who attempted to overthrow the will of the people. Our nation is divided like never before in my lifetime.
Poverty and hunger are twin demons. Demagoguery is ascending even as the rule of law is descending. Fascism threatens the greatest democracy of the world.
And I, Jacob, look to faith and dreams. And in my subconscious, I hear an echo of father Jacob’s dream. Do not fear my servant Jacob, have faith, these demons too, will descend the ladder of history.
Faith and modern science will team together to heal our nation. America will continue to strive to follow the voices of our better angels.
Rabbi Jacob Rosner