In this week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Yaakov (Jacob) runs away from his brother Esav (Esau), who is angry at him for taking his Birthright and his Bracha (Blessing) of leadership. He runs to Charanah, goes to sleep, and when he awakes he sees a Sulam, which is often translated as a ladder. He sees Melachim (angels) going up and down the Sulam, going back and fourth from heaven to earth. Sulam can also be translated as a Stairway. Yaakov is looking, in other words, at a Stairway to Heaven. When Yaakov sees this amazing sight, and after hearing God’s message, he says, Bereshit/Genesis 28:16 “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know.”
What does Yaakov mean? Could it be that Yaakov believes that there is a place where God is not present? The fact that he reacts with such amazement at the sight of the Stairway to Heaven could indicate that previous to this episode, Yaakov has a rather limited view of God, that he believed, on some level, that God could be limited to certain locations.
In last week’s Parsha, Toldot, the commentator Rashi on Bereshit/Genesis 25:27, presented Yaakov as a very religious Jew committed to the intense study of Torah. It would seem that this is the reason that Yaakov was chosen to be the next leader of the Jewish people. However, as religious as Rashi presents Yaakov to be, a reading of Yaakov’s early narrative leaves the impression that his view of God may not be so expansive.
The line in the Torah that Rashi plays off of to present Yaakov as a religious figure who studies Torah is Bereshit/Genesis 25:27 “Yaakov was a man of purity, abiding in tents”. The image of a person “who dwells in tents” is for Rashi a metaphor for the study of Torah, but it could also be a metaphor for Yaakov’s closed image of Torah and of God. He dwells in tents; he does not get out much. He does not leave his metaphorical tent, and his cloistered existence suggests that he may not see or understand a God who can operate outside of a ritualistic setting. Since Yaakov never ventures into the real world, it could be hard for him to conceive of a God who functions in that real world. While Avraham’s tent was an open tent, (Yalkut Shmoni on Parshat Vayeira) which in turn opened up Avraham (Abraham) to God and a vision of Judaism that can function in all aspects of life, Yaakov’s tent, and spirit, were perhaps closed.
Yaakov is then forced to leave his sequestered existence and journey out to the outside world. When he has the vision of the Stairway to Heaven, he begins to learn that God can be everywhere–not just in ritualistic settings but in the most regular settings in the world. When Yaakov says “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16) we see his spirit opening to the possibility that God can be anywhere, and everywhere.
I would argue that there are many so-called religious people today who have Yaakov’s limited view of God before he sees the Stairway to Heaven. They feel that God is limited to the Synagogue, Schools of Jewish learning or in obvious types of ritualistic settings, holidays, ceremonies, and religious life cycle events. These people have a harder time seeing God in more regular places in life—in the gym when we are working out, in our bedrooms in intimate moments and in our workplaces. In fact, I would argue that in many ways, God is in those places more.
Yaakov’s limited view of God before he sees the Stairway to Heaven contributes to his ethical challenges in life. He takes advantage of his brother Esav and will not share his food with Esav who is starving, unless Esav agrees to sell him his birthright. Later in the story, he tricks his father into giving him the blessing of leadership, taking it away from his brother Esav.
It is particularly difficult to understand Yaakov’s unethical behavior when he is presented as such a religious figure. Perhaps Yaakov feels that since he in effect leaves God in his tent when he himself leaves it, he is exempt from ethical conduct when he perceives himself to be out of God’s presence. However, once Yaakov has the vision of the Stairway to Heaven, he understands that God’s presence, and God’s expectations of him and all people, exist everywhere.
Believing that God can be present at every moment and in every place, not only waiting for us in Synagogue or moments of ritual can be a blessing and a challenge. It can give us constant comfort, the knowledge that we are never alone. It can imbue life’s most mundane moments and sights with depth and beauty. However, it is also a reminder that we must always act as if we are in God’s presence—kind, ethical, mindful. In other words, we need to always be building a Stairway to Heaven.
The following is excerpted from the song “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.