Friday, January 20, 2017

How Hatred Begins

What leads to Pharaoh’s murderous hatred of the Jewish people?

The Torah suggests it is not antisemitism as many think. He does not hate the Jewish people because they are Jews. He instead fears their growing numbers. Pharaoh proclaims, “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies.” (Exodus 1)

Pharaoh’s worry is the all too common fear of a fifth column. He worries that the Jewish people will grow so large that they will attack his country from within. I wonder. Is this threat real or imagined? Is it possible that Pharaoh is so insecure about his power that he looks out at the Israelites and his concern grows? Does he begin to see everyone in a similar manner? Pharaoh enacts legislation against the Israelites. They are enslaved. Their suffering increases.

Pharaoh’s worries, however, can never be quelled. Imaginary threats can never be sated. His fear turns murderous. He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill every first-born Israelite. Where does such murderous hatred begin? It forms in the mind.

And that begins with forgetfulness. The Torah affirms: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets his history. He does not remember Joseph and by extension the Jewish people’s contributions to his society. Without the blessings of memory he begins to see Joseph’s descendants not as an asset but a threat.

Slavery becomes possible because he did not observe an essential teaching: Remember! Suffering does not begin with hatred. It follows from a lack of historical memory.

Pharaoh does not know Joseph. He does not remember. And then he looks at Joseph’s descendants and sees not blessings but threats.

Forgetfulness leads to hatred. And hatred too often leads to murder.

Remember!

We were slaves in Egypt.

Love the stranger! (Leviticus 19)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Blessings of Peace

Our hearts are once again joined in sorrow as we watch our brethren in Israel mourn four young people murdered by a terrorist. Anyone who has visited Jerusalem has most certainly stood in this very spot on the Tayelet (Haas Promenade) where the terrorist drove a truck into a group of soldiers. From there we have looked to the north and marveled at the Old City’s walls. While anger, and despair, is an understandable emotion the most important thing is for us instead to steel our resolve. Terrorism can only attack the heart if we allow it in. Add extra songs and prayers to help calm your fears and strengthen your hearts.

This week we conclude the Torah’s first book. We say goodbye to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and turn to that of the Jewish people. And then slavery. Freedom. Revelation. Wandering. Some more revelation. And wandering. And a whole lot more wandering. Until we turn once again back to the patriarchs.

Prior to Jacob’s death he offers a blessing to his grandchildren: Ephraim and Manasseh. He tells his son, Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here I get to see your children as well. He concludes his blessing with the words: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)

Following the lighting of the Shabbat candles, parents therefore bless their sons with these same words: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. For daughters we add, May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For both sons and daughters we then say the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you; may the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Why does the tradition assign this weeks’ words to the blessing of sons? Ephraim and Manasseh are born in Egypt, not the land of Israel. Moreover they are born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath. It remains a curiosity.

There are two possibilities. These words are first spoken by a grandparent, Jacob. When parents bless their children they invoke the blessings of prior generations. The parents are the link between grandparents and grandchildren. They are the conduit by which the values they inherited are brought into the future. Parents make sure that children live up to their inherited responsibilities.

More importantly Ephraim and Manasseh are the first brothers in the entire Book of Genesis who get along and live in peace. When we bless our children we hope and pray that they too will live in peace, that they will not know conflict. While we know and understand that that a life devoid of struggle is an impossibility, this remains our prayer. We pray that our children might know peace.

Knowing otherwise this hope remains our most steadfast prayer. “Peace, peace to those far and near, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 57:19) 

Parents thus place their hands on their children’s heads and recite these words. Susie and I continue to observe this ritual, at least when our children are home and we are celebrating Shabbat and holidays together. It punctuated the week during our children’s younger years. I find myself growing nostalgic. They sat still if but for a brief moment and received their blessing, an extra Shabbat kiss and another “I love you.” The rhythm of the week is punctuated by blessings. 

While most argue that the tradition’s intention is to make our lives more Jewish I believe otherwise. Instead they add meaning to our lives. They demand a pause. They insist on reflection. They turn our thoughts to what is most important, in this case: family. And that is a measure of holiness everyone requires.

There are many blessings to add to your lives. The tradition is filled with hundreds. There is the blessing for the ocean, for the wine, and for the bread. The list appears daunting. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, it is better just to begin. Say it in English if you are more comfortable. This week we are reminded of a great starting point: the words for blessing our children. No matter how old your children might be, it is never too late to start.

Everyone can use an added dose of meaning. Everyone deserves a moment of reflection. Everyone requires more “I love yous.”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Settlements Explained, Partially

What follows is Friday evening’s sermon, although slightly corrected and updated. In the delivered version I had for example exaggerated the number of settlers and underestimated the West Bank Palestinian population. My apologies. I have also added a few additional facts.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the word vayigash. And Judah drew near to Joseph. He drew near to plead for his brother Benjamin. And so I wish to draw near to a topic that is fraught with controversy and one that has been in the news these past weeks: settlements. I would like to think that I too speak in behalf of my brethren, but that will be for you to decide. Nonetheless I will likewise draw near.

Let me begin by stating my bias. President Obama is both right and he is wrong. He is wrong that the United Nations is an honest broker. He is wrong that this institution offers an address to rectify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the exception of the UN Partition vote of 1947, that I might add Israel accepted and the Arab world rejected, I can think of few if any UN votes that have been even handed in their approach to this conflict. The recent UNESCO statement that in effect denied the historical Jewish connection to the city of Jerusalem in general and the Western Wall in particular is yet another recent case in point. While the Security Council resolution was more balanced than most, the United States’ abstention might in fact serve to strengthen Israel’s enemies and weaken its negotiating position. Let me be blunt. The UN long ago abandoned the moral high ground.

Nonetheless the attacks on Obama and the accusations that he has abandoned Israel or that he is the worst president ever in regards to Israel are simply false. There is plenty to disagree with regarding his policies—the fall of Aleppo and the abandonment of millions of human beings in the face of their slaughter by Assad on one side and ISIS and the other represents his greatest policy and moral failure—still the shrill language directed against the president is unhelpful. Moreover, it is inaccurate. He recently signed a $38 billion military aid package for Israel. His administration vetoed every other UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. He rushed emergency aid for more Iron Dome batteries during the Gaza War. Some Israeli military leaders in fact, and contrary to my own opinion, praise the Iran nuclear deal. They argue that the deal has delayed, if not forestalled, an Iran bomb. The vitriol is demeaning of the accusers who throw it. Like his predecessors President Obama’s record is somewhat uneven. President George H.W. Bush also fought with Israel over the settlement enterprise. He held up $10 billion in loan guarantees as long as Israel continued expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The fact is that US policy has always been opposed to the settlement enterprise. Sometimes presidents have pushed this to the forefront. Other times, they have not.

People see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. If you long ago decided that Obama is an enemy of the Jewish state then that is what you will hear and see in every one of his actions. I continue to believe, however, that every US administration going back to Harry Truman is a friend of Israel. Some are better friends than others of course, but let’s be crystal clear about one important fact. Friendship does not mean agreement. In fact the rabbis teach: “Any love not accompanied by criticism is not love at all.” (Bereshit Rabbah) It is instead infatuation. When are American Jews, and most especially their leaders and organizations, going to move away from infatuation to real love? You can love Israel and criticize Israel. Criticism does not mean you love Israel any less. It may mean that you love something more because you believe it can be better; it can be improved. Sure too often criticism of Israel comes from our enemies and even takes the form of antisemitism, but that’s not what’s coming from the US government or our current president or Secretary Kerry.

I take them at their word. I think they believe that the settlement enterprise endangers Israel’s democratic character. To be honest, that is my opinion as well. But of course it is not as simple as that. What the world, and the UN, calls settlements is not what I call settlements. Let me explain.

In the Six Day War Israel captured a great deal of territory from enemy states. It captured the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt. The Sinai was traded for a peace deal with Egypt. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and evacuated 9,000 settlers. The hope was that the Palestinian Authority would begin to fashion the semblance of a state there, but as you know Hamas soon took over (in democratic elections by the way insisted upon by George W. Bush). Now some 1.5 million Palestinians live in horrible conditions and Hamas continues to build tunnels and fire rockets at Israeli towns. The Golan was captured from Syria. Given the present civil war in Syria that territory will remain in Israel’s hands, it must remain in Israel’s hands, if for no other reason than as a necessary buffer against the chaos in the north. And finally Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. It should be noted that it was not captured from the Palestinians. In the peace agreement with Jordan, Jordan relinquished any claim to these territories.

Soon after the 1967 War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and built neighborhoods there such as Gilo, Har Homa, French Hill and Pisgat Zeev. These neighborhoods are part of the Jerusalem municipality. I don’t know of any Israeli who considers these occupied. Of the perhaps 580,000-settler figure you might read about in the newspapers this includes 200,000 in what was once the Jordanian territory in Jerusalem. So take these areas out of the equation, because Israel is not going to withdraw from these Jerusalem neighborhoods. That would be like New York abandoning the Bronx. (It should be noted that there is a new developing phenomenon. Israeli Jews are now moving into Arab East Jerusalem and taking over apartments there. Many imagine that this area will serve as the capital for a Palestinian state, which is why this is troublesome.)

Then there are the large settlement blocs that are outside of Jerusalem’s municipal limits, such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Modiin Illit and Givat Zeev. In the North there is also Ariel. These large settlement blocs have another 290,000 Israelis.  Most recognize that in any peace agreement these areas would have to be incorporated within Israel’s borders. They are just too big and have too many people to be dealt with in any other way. In addition it’s important to understand that many people living there are not ideological settlers who believe that this territory is their God given inheritance. They moved there because they get some tax breaks and they could get a bigger house and a bigger lawn. From Ariel, for example, it’s an easy commute to Tel Aviv.

What is so unfortunate in these public discussions of the settlements is that no such distinctions are made. My liberal relatives who live in Pisgat Zeev are lumped together with 500 radical settlers living in Hebron, a city of some 120,000 Arabs. I met with one such settler, who argued that democracy is a means to an end. And what is the end that he hopes for? He wants the establishment of a Jewish state, not a Jewish-democratic state, in which the third Temple will be built. He wants a theocracy! There are throughout the West Bank small settlements. In Kiryat Arba, outside of Hebron, for example, some 7,000 settlers live. There are approximately 90,000 settlers living in these settlements. There are by the way some 230 settlements. They are not all as ideologically driven as the Hebron settlers, but many are. Such settlements represent a worry for Israel’s democracy. They also undermine any hope that Palestinians might achieve a contiguous state in a large portion of the West Bank. Roads are built that connect Jewish settlements and divide Palestinian areas. Checkpoints are maintained. Yes terrorism remains a grave threat. And Palestinian intransigence is a significant stumbling block toward making peace. The continued Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state within the Arab Middle East remains the greatest hurdle to overcome.  In addition, Palestinian leaders’ praise of murderous terrorists is not only immoral but confounds any attempt to make meaningful progress.

Still you need to know this. The settlement enterprise is undermining Palestinian hope and endangering Israeli democracy. Secretary Kerry is right. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks about two states for two peoples but his government continues to expand these isolated settlements. Shekels spent on settlement expansion are buried in various other budgets, such as defense and transportation. These settlements are what I would call isolated. They are often isolated geographically. They are sometimes built on confiscated land. They are often built without the government’s permission by the so-called hilltop youth and then retroactively recognized. Today there are some 100 settlements that are not recognized as legal—and that is by the State of Israel. These must be isolated ideologically. They are antithetical to Israel’s democratic principles. It is these democratic values that unites America and Israel and binds most American Jews, especially young American Jews, to Israel. Netanyahu has failed to isolate these settlements. In fact they have expanded. And that is a problem. It is a profound worry.

Protecting these settlements forces Israeli soldiers to act against the loftiest visions for the Jewish state. Here it is in a nutshell. You cannot protect 90,000 settlers living among approximately 2.5 million Palestinians and most importantly grant citizenship to the 90,000 and not the 2.5 million and forever call yourself a democracy.

President elect Trump’s pick for ambassador David Friedman is the president of American Friends of Beit El, a settlement in the West Bank. That aligns him to the right of Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli political spectrum; the rabbi of Beit El is rightly labeled as militant. He is not devoted to democracy as a value. He once argued that Jews should never rent homes to Arabs and that soldiers should resist orders to evacuate settlements. I have little doubt what Friedman’s judgment might be about this sermon. He apparently labels such dissenting opinions as treason. As much as I love God I also believe that too much God intoxication is especially dangerous in government. I want God to be kept at a distance when it comes to country. I think that is much safer.

You should know this as well. My worries are shared by many Israelis. I have often found it curious that there is more rigorous debate about Israel’s policies in Israel than is allowed here among American Jews. My views are represented in the Israeli Knesset—by Jewish MK’s. Everyone rightly worries about who Israel’s partner for peace might be. Who might be able to guarantee Israelis safety and security? But I can tell you this. I was in Israel the summer that 9,000 Israelis were evacuated from Gaza and you thought at times there might be a civil war, that the country was being ripped apart from within. Now there are some 90,000 settlers scattered throughout the West Bank, living outside of the security fence constructed in response to the second intifada’s murderous violence. Unless Israel’s pushes out the ideology that feeds these settlements, namely that this is Jewish land and no one else’s we are going to endanger Israel’s democratic character. Israel was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. The creative tension between these two values is what makes it so extraordinary.

Here is what Israel should do. It should invest in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs while halting expansion of these isolated settlements. That would suggest that Israel’s government’s recognizes what the contours of the Palestinian state it publicly affirms will look like. Unfortunately it does not do this. It avoids the debate. It delays these necessary discussions. Netanyahu states that he believes in a two state solution, but his actions suggest otherwise. Let’s have the debate. More importantly let’s be open to criticism from our friends. They may be wrong. They may be right. But this is certain. A friend who demonstrates his support time and again deserves to be listened to and not dismissed as an enemy simply because we don’t like his words.

One final note of Torah. The word vayigash is used in another context. It is used when soldiers draw near to a town to make war. That is my greatest fear. I am tired of war. I wish for Israel to live in peace. But peace will not one day miraculously appear. It requires hard work. It requires difficult conversations and painful compromises. It is to our detriment to ignore criticism. We only become better by opening our hearts to critique, especially when it comes from avowed friends.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Year. New Calendar

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his beautiful exposition of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day.”

At the close of this past week’s Sabbath, I spent the evening like millions, or perhaps billions, of others. I spent Saturday evening celebrating the dawn of a new year.

It seems an odd and arbitrary celebration. After far too many drinks we count down to the turning of the clock from December 31st to January 1st. We hug and kiss and then often drink some more. We look to 2017 with promise and hope, if but momentarily.

And so the new year begins—year after year.

This event, or at least the day, is an inheritance of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar who ruled in the first century B.C.E....

Everyone Lies!?

I am six feet tall. My head is covered with a thick mop of hair. And I have an opera quality singing voice. Ok, perhaps I exaggerate. Or do I lie?

Do our biblical heroes lie?

After Joseph forgives his brothers for conspiring to kill him and sell him into slavery, the entire family of Israel, who is also known as Jacob, moves from the Promised Land to Egypt. (You know how this story is going to end, but I still hope you stay tuned.) Joseph has achieved great power and renown in Egypt. He is now number two to Pharaoh.

He describes his position, however, as follows: “[God] has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45) Does Joseph exaggerate? Does he lie?

Later when instructing his brothers about their impending introduction to Pharaoh he tells them not to describe themselves as shepherds.

“When Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers.’ For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46) Joseph has lived among the Egyptians for many years. He knows their ways. He understands what they find repugnant.

But why would his family’s occupation be so problematic? Shepherding is his inheritance. All of our biblical heroes are shepherds. Abraham is a shepherd. Moses is a shepherd. King David is a shepherd. Only Joseph appears embarrassed by the menial task of tending to a flock. Does he see it as beneath his station?

Is he so worried about his status in Egypt that he is willing to lie in order to protect his hard earned position? Perhaps he is afraid. He has spent years in jail. He understands that the whim of a ruler can send him back to the dungeon. Recall that it was the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife that sent him to an Egyptian jail. And it was the bad reports that he told his father about his brothers shepherding that perhaps caused them to sell him into slavery.

Despite his power and station he is a scarred man. His dishonesty stems from inner weakness. No wealth can assuage his insecurities. His self-esteem needs constant affirmation.

I wonder. Do heroes still lie?


For some interesting and provocative insights about lying, and truth telling, check out The (Dis)Honesty Project.  Here are a few of their videos.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Genesis of Brotherhood

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a far away land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so Joseph tests them.

Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers.

We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome.

The next set of brothers is Isaac and Ishmael. They too have difficulty getting along, although fare better than their predecessors. After Isaac is born Sarah banishes his brother Ishmael. They are forced to live apart from each other. And yet they come together to bury their father Abraham. No words are exchanged. After the funeral they immediately go their separate ways. Still there appears a moment of reconciliation.

Next we read about Jacob and Esau. After Jacob steals the birthright Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob runs from his angry brother. He builds a successful life, again living apart from his brother for many years. Later they are reunited. The Torah offers a tender description about their reconciliation: “Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) And then once again the brothers go their separate ways.

The Joseph story is far lengthier and offers more detail. It occupies four portions. It is the culminating story.

In response to Joseph’s test he discovers that his brothers have changed. They rise up and protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than betray him as they did Joseph. Joseph is overcome with emotion and offers a model of forgiveness. He states: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” The brothers are dumfounded and unable to speak. “[Then Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) Finally they speak to each other. Joseph and his brothers forgive their wrongs.

Unlike the prior instances, Joseph’s brothers do not part ways after their reconciliation. The brothers, as well as their father Jacob, and their mothers, join Joseph in Egypt. The family is reunited. The brothers speak to each other. They are reconciled. It begins with Joseph’s forgiveness.

Perhaps that is lesson of the Book of Genesis.

Brothers, and siblings, and families, are often at odds. And yet this can change. It can turn. It may take years, or even generations, but ultimately there can be full reconciliation.

Many families are unable to repair divides. They keep each other at a distance. A few, however, can right the wrongs of yesterday. Joseph’s family offers the model of complete reconciliation and repair.

That might very well be the most important lesson of the Book of Genesis. It is most certainly its concluding note.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Peacemaking, Eventually!

The story of Hanukkah is a story of zealotry.

The Maccabees took up arms against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. They eventually defeat them and rededicate the Temple. Hanukkah means dedication. The Maccabees also battled against their coreligionists who were enamored of Greek culture. In fact the Maccabees first killed a fellow Jew who was attempting to offer a sacrifice to the king.

For the Maccabees there was no room for those who did not think like them. Either you were with them or against them. Either you were fighting with them or against them and if against them, then subject to their wrath. While such extreme devotion provided them with the passion to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, it also divided the world into two distinct categories, us and them. Eventually everyone called they becomes the enemy.

And eventually, such passion becomes all consuming....

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who Is Your Esau? Or Finding Better Angels

This week Jacob becomes Israel.

First he prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of separation, anger and distrust. Jacob is nervous about the impending reunion. When the brothers parted years ago Esau was filled with rage over Jacob’s stealing of the birthright. Esau even threatened to kill his brother. Then Jacob was young man, unmarried with no children. Now he is the father to many (and husband to Rachel and Leah). He is a wealthy man. Before the meeting between brothers, Jacob sends his family across a river.

He remains alone for the night.

Jacob was alone as well when he dreamed last week of a stairway leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending the steps. This time, however, he chooses solitude. Was it to contemplate the meeting? Would Esau forgive him? Would the brothers be reconciled?

He wrestles with an angel. Now it is not a dream. This struggle continues through the evening’s darkness. Dawn arrives. The divine being wrenches his hip and renames him, Israel. The name Israel means to wrestle with God.

The identity of the angel remains mysterious. Is it his brother Esau? That is a strong possibility given the day’s next meeting. The Torah offers little clarification: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

Who is this being? Is it again an angel?

We join the Talmud’s debate. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argued: The being appeared to him as a heathen. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha (in the name of Rabba ben Ulla) countered: He appeared to him as one of the wise. (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91a) One rabbi argues that the being is an idolater. This is in keeping with a common rabbinic theme that Esau is synonymous with Israel’s later enemies, most particularly the Romans. Another argues that he is a hacham, one of the wise. Do these two views stand in opposition?

What does this say about our identities? We are of course the descendants of Israel.

In realizing our true identity we struggle with two facets. On the one hand we wrestle with the other, the foreigner. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argues that Jacob struggles against his enemies. We too battle enemies. We struggle as well to name our enemies. Is it our brother Esau?

On the other hand we fight with what we hope to be. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha sees Jacob as wrestling with a rabbinic scholar. He views the angel in his own image. Is the struggle internal or external?

A truth emerges. We can achieve a new name for ourselves by pointing at others. Or we can find our name by looking within at ourselves. Is the being our enemy? Is it instead the enemy within?

Who are our angels?

With what do we struggle?

Who are our demons?

The struggle continues. We are Israel.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Stairway to Heaven (with Apologies to Led Zeppelin)

When we last met our forefather Jacob he was busy stealing the first born birthright from his brother Esau. He conspires with his mother Rebekah to outwit his blind father, Isaac. Confused, or willfully blind and therefore party to the deception, Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob. Upon discovering this Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah shouts, “Run! Get out of here. Go to your uncle’s home.”

And this is where we pick up the story. Jacob is on the run. He is on his way to Haran (in modern day Iraq) from Beersheva. He is alone. He is afraid. He stops for the night and prays the evening prayers (according to the rabbis). Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He dreams of the Lord standing beside him. This offers Jacob reassurance.

God promises to protect him. God instructs him that his descendants will become as numerous as the dust of the earth and that the land on which he rests will become his people’s inheritance.

Jacob awakes from his dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28)

This story offers clues about how to access the divine. One seemingly small, but significant, piece of evidence can be found in the word “ladder”. In most translations sulam is rendered as ladder. Indeed in modern Hebrew this is the word used for ladder. In ancient Hebrew, however, sulam can also mean stairway.

There are significant differences between ladder and stairway.

Lots of people will not climb ladders and are even afraid of heights. In fact as I grow older I will no longer climb a ladder to clean the gutters. Now, I have to hire people to do this. Even though this was something I did with regularity, and even joy, when younger, I no longer feel confident climbing so high above the ground. A ladder is unsteady. It can be made of aluminum (or I assume, wood in ancient times) or even rope. Ladders require confidence (or perhaps youthful over-confidence) to climb. They demand a measure of courage.

Stairs by contrast are inviting. Everyone climbs stairs. You can run up them or take them slowly. You can even stop and take a rest on a step. If need be, you can take a step down before climbing back up. According to biblical scholars sulam can also be translated as ramp.

This seems a far better analogy for how we can touch God and approach the divine. This is more helpful for how we might bring holiness into our lives. It is not about courage. It is not about confidence. It is much more like the ordinary task of walking up and down steps.

You most certainly have to climb. You have to reach. You cannot sit still. You can stay in the same place. But everyone can do it.

One step at a time. Up and down. Sometimes, back down and then up again.

Stairs are within everyone’s reach. God is within everyone’s grasp.

“Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.”

Prayer of Tears

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

     Poems arrive ready to begin.
          Poets are only the transportation.

I am transported.

It was some years ago that my friend and I were enjoying a casual summer weekend at his pool. As we watched our young children play, we stood and talked in the pool’s shallow end. I casually mentioned a story about his father and a memory I recalled. His dad had wired the house with some sort of intercoms of his own creation–long before cellphones and Walkie-Talkies.

I still remember that moment. I still recall looking into my friend’s face....