Friday, November 16, 2007

Vayetzei: What's the deal with ladders anyway?

This is my first post. It's gonna be PACKED. Welcome to the party.

Let me start off by apologizing for the blatant Seinfeld-esque ripoff in the title. But hey, we're Jews, and it's what we do. Not necessarily rip things off, but quote Seinfeld. As it's currently very early in the morning, and I have no good transition sentence, let's just get to it and talk about ladders.

This week's Parsha, Vayetzei, brings us to some early but monumental incidents in the Torah. Jacob's dreams of the ladder to heaven and of wrestling with an angel of God are some of the most universally-known occurrences/legends in the history of mankind. Artists across time have used these dream-stream-of-consciousness passages to stylistically attempt an interpretation of the Torah's Word.

There are also several major issues surrounding these revelatory experiences. When Jacob puts down his head to rest, he (purportedly) lays it on the Foundation Stone, aka "The Place Where It All Began," and makes an altar there after he wakes from his dream. The stone would later become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, and is currently being housed under the Dome of the Rock (so far, this is the closest I've been able to get). It is also in this Parsha that the name "Israel" is born. Heavy stuff. But I digress.

Jacob's dreams evoke several thoughts in my mind about the importance of ladders. Ladders, while are not inherently Jewish (there's a cave in Spain with a 10,000-year-old painting of people using a ladder), can play an important role in Jewish consciousness and thought. The Torah says that when Jacob looked up the ladder in his dream, he saw angels "ascending and descending the ladder" into Heaven, with the word "ascending" appearing first. But if angels originate in Heaven, how can they ascend first? Shouldn't they first be coming down? In the Midrash, writers for this passage concluded that since Jacob was a holy man, angels were always present around him, and therefore were able to ascend back to Heaven on the ethereal ladder while the other angels were coming down.

Some Jewish movements also believe that the path to true spirituality is related to climbing a ladder. Chabad philosophy (which Matisyahu claims is the "deepest well-spring") states that living a traditional Jewish life full of ritual and custom cannot come all at once, but gradually. Step-by-step, we can observe and celebrate the mitzvot to the best of our ability and/or level of devotion.

Then we have the old ladder clich├ęs: The Corporate Ladder (which I'm currently trying to climb); The Social Ladder (which I gave up on around 7th grade - you should see my Bar Mitzvah pictures); and then there's The Ladder of Attraction (if you haven't read this theory, it's hilarious). What exactly are we reaching for? What is it about us that makes us always want to be in a different place? Shouldn't we just focus on the here and now? I don't know the answer.

I leave you with a video and song from one of my favorite bands, the now-defunct Agents of Good Roots. Aside from being an great tune with amazing instrumentation, the lyrics (which are printed below) are very poignant and touch on the same ladder themes that I have been discussing. Keep climbing, but once you get to the top, look out kid.

"Jakob" by Agents of Good Roots

Jakob's got a ladder
Climbs up to the sun
Once you get to the top of it
You're going to be someone

Now Ive got a ladder
And it climbs up to the sky
Once i get to the top of it
I'm gonna be good and high

Don't believe in ladders
Heaven ain't in the sky
But once you get to the top
Look out kid

Jakob keep climbing someday
You're gonna get to the top you see
You're living your life on earth
In a state of rebirth
The work is done and time will tell
If you're living in hell
This world is a heaven to me

Sharon's got a rose
Redder than her lipstick
Says, "brother can you spare a dime?"
And then i give it to her quick

Now I've got a rose
But the wine is dirty red
Drink enough for the both of us
In the morning i might be dead

Don't believe in roses
Heaven ain't in the sky
But once you get to the top
Look out kid


Joseph's got a coat
Covers up the back seat
Takes a hit of his smoke
Then he says he can't see straight
No, no

I've got a vision
Colors too bold to call
Big enough for the both of us
Big enough for us all

Don't believe in visions
Zion ain't in the sky
But once you get to the top
Look out kid

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dizzy Dance (Vayetzei)

As the season of (selfless?) giving approaches, I begin to silhouette - as I do every year- my wants against my needs. I am sure that I’m not the only 20-something who has been spending the last 2 1/2 years in a perpetual state of transition and uncertainty, ultimately inducing a sense of powerlessness at the cruel "real world" that was much more glamorous on MTV. I’d be lying if I didn’t seethe with more than a tinge of jealousy upon reading God’s lifetime guarantee to Jacob in this week's Parsha, Vayetzei. For 18 years or so, I was used to someone ushering me across a stage and getting a rolled up piece of paper, marking one transition after another, until I reached the finish line in my bright purple cap and gown, before finding myself teetering on the edge of the Sidewalk in Shel Silverstein's imagination. Wake-up call after wake-up call, I’m slowly learning what it means to be an adult, without any of the cushy certainty that Jacob was afforded in this portion.

Like many youngins, I used to entertain myself on especially slow recess days by spinning around in circles in the schoolyard until I fell down. Doing what I called "The Dizzy Dance." While the nausea billowed up inside me, I still spun around with that reckless childhood abandon that comes only with the sense of invincibility and the guaranteed carton of milk and nap after lunch. And now, years later, it’s admittedly a exciting to have this world teeming full of possibility and change, but I often feel like I’m in a perpetual state of dizzily dancing, without a place to land. Unlike Jacob, who, amidst a journey of uncertainty, finds great solace and the drive to move forward when he realizes his bright future, and the guarantee of comfort and land. Some days I wake up afraid of how possible my future is, almost debilitated by it. If someone were to hold up even a vague image of continuity and certainty, I think I would have a different type of resolve - like Jacob’s- to act self-assured and stable in my decisions and life choices.

This brings me to my current state of affairs - I recently had to transition between jobs, overcome by opportunities to do service projects, either in my current city of residence or while traveling throughout the US. Each of which - a "big girl" job and a 10-month road trip - were never a part of the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” discourse that graced oh-so-many grammar school bulletin boards. Among pictures of veterinarians helping sick puppies and doctors taking temperatures, children are never taught to aspire toward finding self-satisfaction in unpredictability. I made my decision to start a new job - one that’s unconventional, and solely focused on a controversial cause. I’ll never know if giving up the cross-country trip was ultimately the right decision, and I can’t very well lay my head on a rock and suddenly feel comfortable knowing my future the way Jacob does. Instead, I find myself making decisions with the line between want and need blurred, and the image of my future submerged in a fog of risks.

That said, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The upheaval of making myself dizzy is pretty self-destructive, but I guess always wanted to be the sole source of my undoing and personal evaluation. And that type of resolve, my friends, is the better than any gift God can dream up for you.

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