Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Ladder to Humble-ness (5772 Vayetzei)

In Genesis on December 8, 2011 at 12:29 am

Jacob's Stairway?

Climbing, gasping
Up clouds, mountains, and pine boughs
What happens if we fall?

Hosea 12:13 – 14:10
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

What is a ladder? says:

1. a structure of wood, metal, or rope, commonly consisting of two sidepieces between which a series of bars or rungs are set at suitable distances, forming a means of climbing up or down.
2. something resembling this.
3. a means of rising, as to eminence: the ladder of success.
4. a graded series of stages or levels in status; a hierarchical order of position or rank: high on the political ladder.
5. Nautical . companionway ( def. 1 ) .

Definition 1 is literal. Definitions 2, 3, and 4 are metaphorical. Definition 5 is literal, in the nautical application.

What was Jacob’s ladder made of? Was it made of rope, metal, or wood, or some other material? Many artists’ renditions depict a structure of marble, stone, or glass or air. How does material affect the teaching?

Artists also like render the ladder as a stairway, opening up to heaven, with angels on either side, beckoning to Jacob. How does this affect the teaching? Does this fit in the context of Jacob’s narrative?

How do we know Jacob was at the bottom of the stairway, and not under it? How do we know the stairway to heaven was accessible to him? What was to stop Jacob from climbing to heaven if it were? Did the stairway rise for Jacob, or against him? How does this fit the teaching? Does that fit in the context of Jacob’s narrative?

It is a human inclination to assume chosen-ness is inherited and not earned. Is this inclination present in the parsha? It would seem so: Jacob goes on from his dream, after God promises to be with him, to put conditions on his acceptance of God. If God will be with me (Genesis 28:20), he says. Is this doubt of God’s word? Is this arrogance? Jacob’s mercenary behavior in the previous parsha could be at work, too. What about fear? The text says, Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place. (v.11) Why use the phrase certain place? Jacob says and if I return safe to my father’s house…and this stone…shall be God’s abode. (v.21-22) This certain place is not referenced again. Why not say and if I return to this place? For the same reason the place is called a certain place: so as not to reveal it’s location. It may be a hiding place. Could the certain place be close enough to his father’s house to be his father’s house? “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (v.16) Another explanation: Jacob was in such fear of Esau that promising to return to this exact spot was irrelevant. Jacob could mean “let me return safe to my father’s home first, where my brother Esau dwells, and survive his wrath.” Either interpretation accepts fear.

How would you feel if you ran away from home because someone who lived there wanted you dead?

Why is Jacob’s condition necessary to Jacob’s accepting God’s word? Nehama Leibowitz explains:

We may answer that no “deal” is involved. But if God would not grant him to return to his father’s house, how would he be able to erect a temple on the spot? All that Jacob’s vow implied was: “Give me the possibility of serving You.” It provides the archetype for future formulators of vows which are not meant to be commercial deals with the Almihty but petitions for His help in granting man opportuity to give of himself, his life and soul to God.

–Studies in Bereshit, p.307

In other words, if Jacob gets himself killed, which he is wont to do if our previous parsha is any indication, how can Jacob serve God? Or anybody?

Is this reasonable doubt of the idea that Jacob’s response to God was an expression of arrogant chosen-ness and presumption? Are artistic depictions of stairways opening to Jacob inaccurate and biased? Does the parsha issue any rebuttals to these ideas?

According to the Midrash:

R. Huna said in the name of R. Aha: It is stated:
“And behold I am with thee” and it is also stated: “If God will be with me”?
But from here we may conclude that there is no promise for the righteous in this world.

–Bereshit Rabba

Was Jacob grappling with God’s faithfulness? Or his own?


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