Sunday, November 3, 2013

Stairway to Heaven (Portion Vayetze)

In my high school days, every dance finished with “Stairway to Heaven. ”  Jimmy Page’s unmistakable opening acoustic guitar riff was, therefore, the clarion call to find a partner for the last eight minutes of the evening.  What ensued was inevitably awkward, for this classic rock song is, in fact, truly terrible for dancing (for more details here, see:  
You’d sway earnestly to the recorder for the first six minutes, then stumble about with ever-more frenetic cluelessness as the pace and volume quickened, with Robert Plant exploding into “And as we wind on down the road....”  Ah, high school.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a very different stairway to heaven, with angels going up and down upon it.  For the patriarch, this is more a beginning than an end.  This vision comes to him on the first night of his flight from his home, escaping his enraged brother Esau, who he cheated out of their father’s blessing.  Upon waking, Jacob proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”—and then he asks God to protect him on the long and arduous journey that lies ahead.

But why does God appear to him on a stairway?  Perhaps this comes to teach him—and us—something about the nature of spiritual growth.  Rabbi Harold Kushner notes: “We ascend toward God one step at a time, making one small change in our lives and stabilizing it before we take another step.  Sometimes we slip and miss a step, falling back, but we recover and keep climbing.  Most people do not leap toward God in one great burst of enthusiasm.”

Indeed.  Sustained forward progress of any sort in this life comes slowly, in fits and starts.  After his dream, Jacob experiences both remarkable triumphs and deep failures.  Twenty years will pass before he reconciles with Esau.  In the meantime, he labors to win both Leah and Rachel after their father Laban deceives him (yes, he has it coming), then he wrestles with an angel—and his own conscience.  Sometimes, as in this week’s portion, he will feel God’s presence intensely.  At other times, he experiences the ache of divine absence.  Jacob will eventually become Israel, the father and namesake of our people.  But his path to that place is neither easy nor straightforward.  And as we wind on down the road. . .

So it is for us.  Like Jacob, we experience moments of extraordinary beauty, and holiness.  And then we get back to the hard work of ordinary living, day to day, hoping and praying that the power of those times of grace, now past, will sustain us until those that yet lie ahead.  On the sometimes very long dry stretches in between, the music isn’t always danceable.  The trick is to keep dancing anyway.

Now this kid gets it!

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