Ascending and Descending the Rungs

One of the first books I read as I began to learn more about Judaism as an adult was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s “God was in this place and I, i did not know,” a beautiful book of commentary on the story of Jacob’s ladder, of spirituality and deep reading. A Reform rabbi and mystical teacher, Kushner’s books open up Jewish mysticism for liberal Jewish communities.

In the story, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau after tricking him, and along the way he lies down to sleep. In his dream, he has a vision: “A ladder, standing on earth, its top reaching the heavens. And behold: angels of God, going up and going down on it. And behold: God is standing on it…” (Genesis 28)

I hadn’t had much experience with deeply reading Jewish text and discovering the many voices inside it. I remember being struck by Kushner’s prologue. He outlines the many interpretations of what the ladder represents, and then draws out the idea of connecting earth with heaven, especially noting the direction of the angels, also translated as “messengers”: “There is another, even more obvious interpretation. The angels did not reside in heaven at all. They lived on earth. They were ordinary human beings. And, like ordinary human beings, they shuttled back and forth between heaven and earth. The trick is to remember, after you descend, what you understood when you were high on the ladder.”

This idea, that we ourselves may be the messengers of God, the journey beginning right here where I stand rather then in some far off inaccessible place, floored me. And it became a touchstone of my spiritual life.

As humans, we ourselves—imperfect as we are—have the capacity to experience lofty moments of understanding, to connect with God and the “ladder rungs” far above our own. It’s hard work, and it sometimes seems impossible, but we have the capacity to actually advance a bit up the ladder and return back with what we learned. And sometimes, we are able to be God’s messengers for each other. If we listen carefully enough.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

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