There is a lithograph that hangs at the end of our upstairs hall. It is a depiction of one of the Bible’s best known scenes, showing a sleeping Jacob at the foot of a tall ladder that runs from Earth to Heaven. On the ladder angels can be seen, seemingly going from one place to the other, although it is a bit unclear from the picture if they are going up or down.
I’ve always read the biblical story (Genesis 28:10-19) as a narrative about the way God’s presence can suddenly appear in unexpected places at unexpected times. Here was Jacob, alone in the wilderness, in a place that might actually be described as ‘God-forsaken,’ and he has an experience that reminds him that God is still with him. Even there. But the lithograph in our home has given me a different perspective on the story. The two lower angels seem to beckoning to Jacob, waving their arms upwards, as if to say, ‘Rise with us, shake off your slumber, you can follow us to a higher place, a more sacred space, and we can show you the way.’
Freud might say the angels are a representation of Jacob’s unconscious. Even while he sleeps there is a part of him that is striving to do and be better, to ‘rise’ to become the person he knows he should be. After all, Jacob has at best a complicated history. He has just deceived his father, and this seems to be part of a pattern in his life, having previously done something similar to his brother Esau. He knows Esau is threatening to kill him. So Jacob flees for his life. He is physically alone when he dreams of the ladder and the angels, but he is also suffering from an existential loneliness, and perhaps he is engaged in what the Sages would call a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul. So that night, alone with his thoughts, he dreams not only of a way out, but also of a way up.
The Kotsker Rebbe taught that when we are born God sends our souls from Heaven to Earth on a ladder, and that the fundamental task of our lives is to climb back up that ladder in the course of our earthly journey. But there is a trick. For according to the Kotsker, God pulls the ladder up, just out of our reach, the moment we arrive on Earth. We might sense the ladder is there, but we can’t see it. Some souls leap, trying to grasp the ladder, and after trying for a time get discouraged. But other souls continue to leap, year after year, knowing that something sacred is there, and never giving up on finding it. The Kotsker Rebbe said that for those souls God has mercy, and ultimately reveals the ladder to them.
Our task then, in the words of the Kotsker Rebbe, is to be leaping souls.
That image is a powerful one, particularly during our fall holiday season. We do spend these weeks thinking about our lives, weighing our own characters, and wondering what we can do to be better. Just like leaping, the process can be tiring, even discouraging at times. We know ourselves well, we know the foibles and the flaws, the shortcomings and the sorrows. But we ask God for the strength to continue to leap, to almost literally jump forward into a new year, with all of its possibility and hope. A metaphoric leap of faith.
The picture in our hall reminds me, day in and day out, that the ladder is out there, even if I can’t see it everyday. Like the angels with Jacob, there are so many forces in my life that constantly encourage me to continue to reach for that first rung. People who love me and trust me. Family and friends with whom I’ve shared the joys and sadnesses of life. The beauty of God’s world that brings to me a sense of the sacred. And always the start of a New Year and the chance to both return and renew.