Launch Sermon Player

The Ladder of History

Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Menachem Mirski

We live in a world that is so deeply divided ideologically that it is commonplace to rationalize the concept that people live in different, parallel realities. We see ideas of tolerance and pluralism, that were born from the Enlightenment, proliferated during the last 20 years – expressed in slogans like “agree to disagree” or, attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – mean little to nothing today. What happened to our Enlightenment values? What caused these deep ideological rifts that pierce so many Western societies?

While there are many answers to these questions, it is possible that postmodernism, by deconstructing everything, also deconstructed what was good and valuable in our culture, and now we are living in a time of another “re-evaluation of already re-evaluated values”. It is also possible that much of this “ideological rupture” is a delusion due to the fact that most of our political debate takes place on the Internet. Debate on the internet fuels division and radicalism because it is a place where people have no external stop signs or limits and does not require anyone to take responsibility for their words. All of that has an impact “outside the matrix”.

A wider perspective might see this disorder as an intrinsic orderly process of birth, decay and rebirth, and not only is nature subject to this order but also the world of spirit and ideas.

In this week’s Torah portion we have the story of Jacob, who on his way from Beersheba to Haran has his famous dream about a ladder and angels wandering on it:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Avraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land on which thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed (Gen 28:12-13).

In Midrash Tanhuma we have a very interesting interpretation of Jacob’s dream:

“And behold the angels of God are ascending and descending”: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many! In that our Jacob was afraid and said: Peradventure, this one has no descend? Said the Holy One, blessed be He to him: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob… neither be dismayed, O Israel”. Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me, thence will I bring him down! As it is stated (Obadiah 1:4): “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.”

According to this Midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of nations, empires and cultures in the arena of world history. The fact that this knowledge was revealed to the father of the Jewish people is not surprising. The last mentioned empire, Edom, in rabbinic mind, represents the Roman Empire and its political successors. The author of this Midrash lived in the period of the Roman Empire and had not yet witnessed its decline, so it is no wonder that Edom only ascended. However, the way it is told seems to suggest that the final fate of Edom will be the same as that of any other empire.

Empires rise and fall, and as such, one may predict that just as the Greeks and the Romans fell, so too will the empire known as the “Western World.” I’m not a prophet and I don’t know what will happen, however, from the Jewish theological point of view, where God is a master of history, we know this depends entirely on God. God revealed to Jacob the nature of this historical process; nevertheless He is above nature, He is its ultimate ruler. To what extent is this process dependent on us? It seems that it is dependent on us human beings only to the extent we are able to influence God and His decisions. So, nobody knows. But according to Deuteronomistic doctrine of reward and punishment which we express everyday in our Shma God is more favorable to us when we are righteous. Thus being righteous and having good faith can’t hurt.

Whether it happens or not, the collapse of the West does not have to be immediate, spectacular or complete. It is very possible that it could be a kind of hybridization of different cultures and political systems which ultimately may positively contribute to the development of the whole world. Uniting us all rather than destroying.

The idea of humanity as a single human race is at the heart of our tradition: we are all created in the image of God. Ideas of a great unity of humankind were expressed by our prophets. According to Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6) at the end of times all the people will become Jewish. The vision of Micah is, however, a bit different:

Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit Under his grapevine or fig tree With no one to disturb him. For it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk Each in the names of its gods, We will walk In the name of the LORD our God Forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)

A future where the nations will live in peace and all will retain their distinctiveness and their identity. Relying on common sense and above all my faith in God I would say the following: this vision can not come true until we treat each other respectfully. Unfortunately, we do not. The division among us is apparent on all possible levels and ranges between individuals to family to community to globally. We see the hatred, slander, defamation, demonization, applying group responsibility, contempt, revenge, resentment, self-hatred, bigotry and intolerance everyday and everywhere. In our tradition, hatred, slander and defamation are serious sins and they often start with smaller offenses, like mockery and insults, which, like everything evil, can escalate to unimaginable magnitudes.

We must avoid mocking people who think differently, not to mention treating someone with contempt. Let us remember that people who have a different vision of the world, have the same human nature – they are in the image of God. By insulting them we insult God. We also shouldn’t treat each other as objects – for example, like computers that can be reprogrammed (ideas of this kind are sometimes expressed at the ends of the political spectrum). First, we shouldn’t do it because people, good or vile, should not be treated as objects. Second, because it has the opposite effect: people cannot be reprogrammed. Attempting to do so can only result in retaliation and aggression. If a group in power has a significant advantage over another ideological group and forces its opponents to submit then resentment will arise and like a time bomb will explode when a defensive group comes to power in the future. Treating people as objects is then not only immoral: it is senseless and dangerous.

Let us treat each other with respect and control our impulses of anger. While they may be natural they are the source and fuel for many of the bad things mentioned above. Moral ideas, such as respecting each other, self-control, and many others, like not slandering or deceiving each other, are present in all cultures. These are fundamental and universal values: they are not culturally relative. It is so because they are the foundations of every civilized human society. Had they not developed within society they wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrived. The fact that they are present in all cultures is a strong foundation for the belief that the visions of our prophets are not pipe dreams – their realization is absolutely possible.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA