Rung by Rung

The famous story of Jacob’s ladder is found in this week’s Torah portion. Our spiritual ancestor Jacob is on his way to Haran from his home in Beer-Sheba when he stops to sleep for the night. The text reads:

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Genesis 28:10-17

I would surmise that we have all had experiences when we wake up from a dream that is so vivid, and so powerful, that we are shaken as Jacob was, and feel that through that dream we have received a message of some sort. We may turn to others to help us figure out the images and symbols that we saw in our sleep. In this case, we all have the opportunity to reflect on Jacob’s dream, and discern some lessons about what it shows.

It is an interesting, yet curious, image. A large staircase or ladder connecting the ground and the sky, and angels moving up and down on it. We could all perhaps imagine what this might look like. What’s curious about it is, if these are angels of God, or, in other words, these are divine beings, then why do they need a ladder to go from heaven to earth and back again? We do have other instances in the Torah of stories of angels who just appear to humans, no stairway in sight.

There are a number of readings of this text throughout Jewish tradition, as one may expect. I want to share a reading that struck me this week: that it is not that the angels need a ladder to go from earth to heaven, but that, like all of the images that we see in our dreams, the ladder is telling us something about ourselves and our reality. And that reality is that while angels might not need staircases and ladders, we need staircases and ladders to get from one level to another.

Now I don’t imagine that we can construct a staircase or ladder that can go that high. But the point here is that to attain a new height, or goal, or level, we need to take things one step at a time. There is no jumping to the top, no rushing to the finish line. We climb the rungs of the ladder with a sense of humility and gratitude for each step, and the realization that in order to reach the next rung, we take the one before it.

In thinking of Jacob’s ladder, I was also thinking about about another “ladder” from our tradition: the eight levels of tzedakah (charitable giving) as put forth by Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar. In his major work, the 12th century code of Jewish law called the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines eight different ways we give charity, in lessening levels of “greatness”:

  • There are eight levels of tzedakah, each one greater than the other. The greatest level, higher than all the rest, is to fortify another and give a gift, a loan, form a partnership, or find work, until they are strong enough so that they do not need to ask others [for sustenance].
  • One level lower than this is one who gives tzedakah to the poor and does not know to whom they give, and the poor person does not know from whom they receive.
  • One level lower is one who gives tzedakah and the giver knows to whom they give but the poor person does not know from whom they take.
  • One level lower is when the poor person knows from whom they takes but the giver does not know to whom they give.
  • One level lower is to give with one’s own hand before asked.
  • One level lower is to give after asked.
  • One level lower is to give less than one should but with kindness.
  • One level lower is to give begrudgingly.

Maimonides does not posit this as a ladder, that one must take one step before reaching the other. However, there is a similarity in that even here, there is no jumping to the top, no rushing to the “finish line.” Each level is important in its own right, and you may notice what is not on this list: not giving tzedakah at all.

In thinking about Maimonides’s levels in a macro sense, the top ladder is not just providing an individual with a job so that they do not need tzedakah anymore, but it is instituting policy that will alleviate poverty as a whole. We know that income inequality, wage stagnation, rising housing costs, lack of medical coverage, no paid family leave–these are all policies that contribute to poverty and homelessness. If we have the political will, we can address these and create real social change.

In the meantime, however, we can not lose sight of the immediate needs of those in our communities. This may require participating in one of Maimonides’s “lower” levels of tzedakah. Here, then, we are called upon to give based on our own capacity and resources. By doing so, we know we may not be addressing the issue as a whole, but we are meeting an immediate need. And that is just as important. Even if we can not do everything, that does not free us from doing anything.

Looking back at Jacob’s ladder, it is not only that the angels are using a ladder, but they are going “up and down”–i.e., in both directions. So too with our own climbing–there may be times we ascend, and times we descend. We might stay on one rung for a longer period of time, and we may revisit a certain step several times. And, like in Maimonides’s levels, we might be on several steps at the same time. But we keep moving, working towards our goals, knowing that each step is an accomplishment that makes an impact.

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