Communication is often difficult. When it comes to talking about our very different relationships to and understanding of God it becomes nearly impossible. How can words express our own unique constellation of presence and absence, sense and feeling, love and awe, doubt and certainty, rationalisation and experience?
As words fail, our spiritual lives can become isolating. Moments of the highest connection can collapse into the feeling of great disconnection from other people.
Last Shabbat I taught a session about the story of Jacob’s ladder at the Movement for Reform Judaism’s Northern Community Weekend. There I was reminded of the power of Torah to bring us from our separate experiences back together into community. By Torah I don’t mean just the book itself, but instead our reading practice of Torah. Our tradition of arguing over meanings, consciously or unconsciously projecting our own experiences on to its stories, always trusting that it can hold each of us. As such, Torah is an anchor, it can ground us and bring us together from our separate experience to the world that we share.
When it comes to discussion of our spiritual lives and encounters, we are in an ideal part of the cycle of Torah readings to consider these. The story of Jacob is rich in experience of God. Last week we read about Jacob’s dream of the ladder in parashat Vayetse and this week we will read about Jacob wrestling with the Ish in parashat Vayishlach.
In our contemplation of Jacob’s dream I encouraged the group to vocalise the reading through Jacob, to imagine that each of them were Jacob: different interpretations of what the ladder, the angels and God in the story actually were emerged. I was moved by the idea that the ladder and the angels going up and down constituted God, meaning that God was not in heaven but instead in the very process, in the flow of connection.
Yet, the story has a distinct verticality about it. The ladder goes from the earth to the heavens, making it hard to see God as other than above us. The idea that God is outside of us and above us can be a compelling one, yet I worry about it. What if such connection with God leaves you higher up on the ladder, too far from the material world? One participant suggested that this is fine as long as you can bring down to the material world the insights that you gain. Another was concerned that this idea of God made it too difficult to leave behind the limiting childhood image of God with a beard in the clouds.
The story of Jacob wrestling that we read this week provides a helpful contrast to this problem in its radically different conception of connection with God.
The narrative itself invites us to compare these two stories of spiritual experience. Indeed in the Talmudic discussion of them the rabbis jumped between them as though they are one (bHullin 91a-b).
Both incidents happen at night. The first occurred after the sun had set (Genesis 28:11) and the other continued until the dawn had broken (32:25). It is as if the second story actually completes the first.
In the first story Jacob is taken by surprise. He shows this to us afterwards when he exclaims: God was in this place and I, I did not know it (28:17). Contrastingly in the wrestling incident we read that ‘Jacob was left alone’, as though waiting for such an encounter. Perhaps, as Laurence Kushner, quoting our teacher Jonathan Magonet suggests, Jacob was hoping for a repeat of the ladder dream. There God had been both awesome and reassuring/comforting, promising Jacob protection (28:15). Instead he has a very different experience.
His encounter is recorded as an experience in the material world. Though dream like, it is not a dream. He leaves it physically hurt, limping away from the encounter with the Ish (person). Yet this is recorded as an encounter with God. The Ish says: ‘you have struggled with God and men and you have prevailed’ (32:29). Jacob then comments ‘I have seen God face to face’ (32:31).
There is a sense of excitement in Jacob’s dream; Jacob comments on how awesome God is, proceeds to name the place and makes his own promise back to God (28:16-22). Yet in the second story it is he who is named first (32:19). The Ish renames Jacob ‘Israel’, he who struggles with God. The first encounter bolstered, comforted and supported him, whilst this encounter has utterly transformed him.
Perhaps these two stories point to maturation. It is only when he is older, with more life experience, that he can have that kind of encounter.
I think of the two stories as different modes of connection with God. The vertical ladder image can take you higher through dance, it can offer comfort in prayer, reassurance in the memory of that connection. And the danger is in not being able to integrate that connection with other people in the physical world. Luckily this is counterbalanced with the horizontal God of the wrestling story. There God can be found in encounter with other people. Not just passing encounter, but in moments where you are open enough to the other to be changed, and that change is, as Jacob shows, painful, but necessary.
What this means within our personal experiences is impossible to explain with words: whilst words cannot hold those experiences, the narrative of Torah, with its stories of encounter and challenge, with the space for multiple interpretation and with its invitation to us to project our lives on to it, can.
Then as we ascend upwards through ideas and as we are challenged by those we study with, Torah becomes the ultimate synthesis; it anchors us, like the rock under Jacob’s head as he dreamt, firmly in this world.
Student rabbi Daniel Lichman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.