The Way Up is the Way Down
Thank you all for joining my family and me as we celebrate my becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I am honored that you are spending Shabbat with us, and feel so grateful to have so many with whom to share my joy. This Shabbat has a special significance for me, but it also has a special significance for this congregation, as it coincides with the first event marking Temple Beth El's 90th anniversary.
In fact, the name of this synagogue comes straight out of Vayetze, my Torah portion,
which tells the story of Jacob on the run from a home life that is, at best, difficult. Jacob, away from home for the first time, goes to sleep in a place (Makom in Hebrew) somewhere along his journey. God comes to him in a dream, showing him a ladder with its top reaching heaven and its bottom touching earth. Angels are ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob wakes up and says, “God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He realizes that all ground is holy, even in the desolate location in which he finds himself.
Indeed, in Hebrew, one of the names of God is HaMakom, which simply means “the place.” As God is everywhere, wherever we find ourselves must be “The Place”. Recognizing the Overwhelming Divine Presence, Jacob takes the Stone that he slept on and anoints it with oil, consecrating the Place, which he names Beth El, which in English means “the House of God”.
This Torah portion is so rich with topics for discussion that it's hard to know where to start. The commentaries on Jacob's Ladder alone fill many bookshelves. The image of Jacob's Ladder is striking; angels continuously ascend and descend the ladder, making a circuit. The imagery of the circle recurs in Judaism, for example, with the seder plates we use on Passover and Tubishvat. It is also inherent in the way we practice Judaism: when we finish reading the Torah, we begin all over again.
When I started to think about this imagery, I asked myself why are the angels on Jacob's ladder making the loop? In our culture, we usually associate ascent with important thoughts, with enlightenment, and with progress, while we associate descent with the past, with failure, and with corruption of the mind. I think this is a limited way of looking at things. We know that when you are climbing a mountain, descent from the zenith is just as important as getting up to the top. We also know that when you are scuba diving, you need to come back up to the surface. In both cases, you see the wonders of the world, but you have to make a return trip. Ever upward is just as unhealthy as ever downward.
In Mandarin Chinese, which I am studying and really love, “down” and “up” can have very different meanings from their English counterparts. A common meaning of the word “down” (xia4) is “next.” Because the Chinese language talks about the future optimistically, “down” has a positive connotation. For example, “next year” (ming2nian2) literally translates to “bright year”. The word for “up” (shang4) means “previous”. And one synonym for shang4 is qu1, which is the verb “to go”. The Chinese language thinks of things that have already happened as having gone. For example, the word for “last year” (qu1nian2) literally translates to “the year that went”. If you follow this line of thinking, then “up” means “went” and “down” means “next”. It's kind of like what a great Jewish sage said, “Hello, I must be going.” By the way, that sage was Groucho Marx.
In a way, “Hello, I must be going” is a theme of Vayetze, in that Jacob doesn't expect to remain in Haran for very long; he plans to take refuge there for only a short time, while Esau's temper cools. But Jacob's family dynamics are complicated. His mother's favoring of him sours his relationship with all of his immediate family members, especially his brother; his uncle Laban connives against him; his wife angers her father by stealing his idols; his cousins are jealous of his wealth; and his brother is amassing wealth and arms. His one choice is to flee, and eventually to reestablish himself.
This aspect of Vayetze resonated with me when I began to think about what kind of Mitzvah Project I wanted to work on. As I was looking at various ways that I could make a difference locally, I came upon the organization Kids in Crisis. Kids in Crisis provides 24-hour support to help children and their families resolve conflict. The stories of many of the children served by Kids in Crisis bear similarities to Jacob's story. Both the children at Kids in Crisis and Jacob come from troubled homes; both seek temporary refuge. Like Jacob, the children stay for a time, and with help and hard work gain a better footing in life, and then move on. And in a way, Kids in Crisis could also be thought of as a ladder leading to a better life.