“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know. And he trembled and said: What an awe inspiring place, this is the house of the Lord and the gate to heaven”. Gen 28.17
Jacob’s vision in this week’s Parashah is one of the most famous stories of the Torah. In it he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth and that same ladder is being used by angels ascending and descending from earth to heaven and back.
Our Rabbis explain the symbolism of this vision as a revelation which discloses many of our beliefs about spirituality and God himself. The Holy One showed Jacob the angelic princes of four kingdoms: Babylon, Media, Greece and Rome, among the four kingdoms where the Jewish People were to be exiled. And God promised Jacob his protection: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and you will be established in this land again because I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” Despite this, Jacob was really afraid when he woke up.
Jacob is forced to leave his home like many of our ancestors. After taking the blessing from his brother Esau, his mother Rebecca warns Jacob about Esau’s intention to kill him, and he goes to the land of his uncle Laban with the excuse and the intention to find a wife. He leaves his home and land without knowing whether he will ever see his parents again, aware of the threat of his brother.
Imagine the feeling of loneliness and helplessness. Leaving one´s home in youth is one of the most difficult and stressful moments in any life. The exile of Jacob is a long journey which will take him from adolescence to adulthood. He has a mission to accomplish: to take a woman of the house of Laban, and as his father Isaac tells him, to become an assembly of peoples and inherit the land that God promised to Abraham. What loneliness, helplessness, fear of the unknown, and weariness for a man who had lived surrounded by comfort, now sleeping on rocks.
Our father Jacob is bound to have a great responsibility. He is the heir of moral and spiritual values that exceed his own being. That ladder linking heaven and earth represents values. These values are the values of justice and compassion in the Torah. Jacob’s vision and experience of the divine presence will change his life …. nothing will ever be the same. He knows this, and despite the protection that God promises in his dream, he feels doubt and anxiety about an uncertain future. The biblical verse says he felt afraid … “Truly God is in this place” and then he took the stone he had slept on and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that place Bethel, meaning “house of God”. This house will contain those values and will be the place where the people of Israel will meet God’s presence.
Since then every Jewish father and every Jewish mother have been the custodians and transmitters of these life principles. Each of us is called to safeguard this heritage and build spaces where we meet God, the people of Israel and all humanity. We face a long journey with all its difficulties…. its moments of sadness and joy. Like Jacob we also face the gates of heaven and have fear.
The Jewish people has always been aware of its responsibility. It has been committed in providing human, intellectual and economic support in order to transmit Torah values. We owe our parents and our ancestors this heritage we have received. Even in the most adverse circumstances, and in many cases risking their lives, they did not hesitate for a single moment to pass on this legacy. We are heirs and debtors of all those Jews who for centuries gave everything so that today we can live with meaning and fulfilment. For this, this ladder which connects us to God is still standing today after thousands of years.
An example of this dedication and passion for teaching Torah in mortal danger is given to us by the converts persecuted by the Inquisition in Spain where I grew up. Despite persecution and under constant suspicion and threat of being betrayed to the Inquisitorial Court, they developed clandestine methods for teaching at home. They created information networks that supplied secret communities with equipment for basic instruction. In many houses the principles of Judaism were taught to children from the age of thirteen. In the archives of the Inquisition of Granada (Spain) we find details of the stories of women like Leonor of Montalban.1.
Leonor was made prisoner on suspicion of keeping Judaism in secret in 1593. Inquisitorial documents inform us how after losing her mother at the age of five years, her aunt Beatriz Hernández was in charge of her education. Her aunt taught her to fast from the age of 7 and gradually she was instructed in foods she should not eat and the most basic beliefs. As she grew she was taught to prepare kosher meat at home, and at the age of her first menstruation she was educated in ritual ablution ceremonies.
Her sister Bernardina confessed they started practicing the Law of Moses at the age of 9 until she married at the age of 14. She herself said in court that the educational process was not a one-time thing but it took time.
“They started to tell me that fasting although I was a child was a good thing. Not to eat bacon because it is dirty, or rabbit or hare. And to believe in one God and not in images. When I was old enough to begin to rule the house they taught me to take away the guts of the meat, it was delivered to my house and give them to the moriscos 2. because they eat them. They used to visit me at home every season and tell me that when my period comes I must wash my whole body. “
Jacob took the stone and set it up as a pillar and he named that place Bethel, the house of God. Leonor, Maria, Beatriz … risked their lives to maintain a Jewish household in the time of the Inquisition. Every Jewish woman and every Jewish man has set up their own stone in Bethel. Everyone faces the responsibility to preserve and build both family and community in a culture of Jewish values. There is plenty to do: In Spain we have to rebuild our communities after centuries of Inquisition and to offer a capable alternative to the existing orthodox community. Here in England I have been surprised by the fact that there are many Jewish families where Saturday seems like a Monday, communities that seem mere service providers … There are families which have lost their connection to Judaism … some people have no one to share a Shabbat lunch. I have found communities with hundreds of members where only 20 people go for a Kabbalat Shabbat service. In my kehillah in Seville we are only 60 members but at least 30 of them come for the service. Could you imagine progressive Synagogues in the UK with one thousand people attending Erev Shabbat in their community? Are we better than British Jews? No, of course not, we just feel the necessity of having a community after centuries without it. We should think why some British Jews do not feel the same. You and I have the possibility of taking a passive or active position on this reality. Many have decided to just pay membership and come to the synagogue a few times a year. Thanks to all of them for their help. If I was their rabbi I would go door to door … thanking them… but I could not stop myself adding: You are part of a legacy, Live it!
1.Research done by David M. Gitlitz. Published in his book “Secrecy and Deceit. The Religion of the Crypto-Jews”. 1996, JPS.
2. Moricos: Muslems who converted to Christianity.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.