Jacob awakes from his dream of a ladder reaching toward heaven with angels going up and down and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)
A Hasidic story. A wealthy man who approaches the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asks if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire. (I first heard this story from Rabbi Naomi Levy.)
At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack hallah, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."
On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.
The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband comforted her.
That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well and drank well. They sang and prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his stomach was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet.
On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside filled with anger. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's shoe got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up he overheard sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the hut. The children were jumping up and down and shouting with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever experienced.
The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."
Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was. "Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”
Why did the angels go up the ladder in the opposite direction from what would be expected? Why did they climb the ladder not down from heaven but up from the earth?
The answer is uncovered in the story.
Not if we become Elijah.
The answer is discovered in Jacob’s dream.
Not if we are angels.
Nearly 300,000 Long Islanders receive emergency food assistance every year. (Read more at Long Island Cares.)
We are surrounded by extraordinary abundance. And yet 50 million Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families. No one should go hungry in this blessed land.
We can do more. We can be like Elijah. We can become angels.
That is our dream. It is the same as Jacob's. To climb ladders toward heaven. To become angels.