Human nature is unique. It is qualitatively different from the one possessed by the animal kingdom or by the מלאכים, “angels.” While their natures are at the extreme of each other, they share a commonality. The nature of every animal and for that matter, each angel is at one with the essence of its being. So, for example, an animal does not experience doubt or conflict about what it should do at any moment. When it is hungry it eats, when satisfied it sleeps. No indecision arises whether to go to the beach or watch TV. So too is it true for a מלאך, an “angel.” We are informed by our Torah scholars that an “angel” (a non-physical entity like an idea of physics) performs one task and one task only. In other words, both the animal kingdom and the realm of “angels” share the feature that their natures do not involve free will.
Mankind, however, is the one creature that possesses free will. By virtue of this faculty, man can choose what he will do and into what ventures he will place his energy. This unique ability can be the bane or blessing of his existence. This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, sheds a little insight into consequences of harnessing this singular quality of man. The parsha, begins with a simple event. Yaakov embarks on a trip to his uncle’s home in Paddan-Aram. With his departure from Beersheva, though unbeknown to him at that moment, Yaakov was setting out on a formative journey that would transform his personality and ultimately his relationship with God.
We are told that upon reaching a certain place by nightfall, Yaakov places stones around his head, lies down, and falls asleep. During his sleep, he dreams of a ladder extending from earth into the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it. In this dream, Yaakov receives a prophecy from God promising him and his offspring ultimate possession of the land he is lying on. His descendants will become like the dust of the earth spreading in all directions. The dream ends with personal promises made by God to safeguard Yaakov throughout his life.
When Yaakov woke up the Torah states, “ And he took the stone that he placed around his head and set it up as a pillar… poured oil over it… and vowed this pillar shall become a house of God.” But didn’t the Torah previously say, “He placed stones around his head.” Of all things to tell us, why does the Torah describe Yaakov arranging stones to lay his head on? How did many stones now become one? In explanation, Rashi quotes a famous Midrash. “The stones were quarreling with each other which one will Yaakov rest his head on?” Let us look more closely at this event, Yaakov’s first overnight, and derive some important ideas we can incorporate into our own lives.
Yaakov’s departure from his house was in part due to an ongoing tension between him and his brother Esau. No doubt Yaakov was in conflict and upset about the manner in which he left. His sleep that first night out was disturbed, a very uneasy sleep. He had many issues on his mind. How would he work them all out?
Human energy and effort from birth are first directed toward the physical and material world. This attachment is natural and for many of us it remains the focal point of our lives. We seek acquisition and dominance over this realm. The stones and their quarreling with each other represent the myriad of emotions and instincts, our internal desires, vying for this energy. We are pulled from pillar to post. We could be doing this; we could be doing that. We are in a conflict where to place our energy. Yaakov was no different. Which stone would win out? Where should Yaakov place his energy?
The ladder, we are told, extended from earth to the heavens. What is the idea? Again, all human energy is initially directed toward the physical. But as a person goes through life and experiences various pleasures, he sees that the pleasures of the physical world are temporary and wear off. That car he thought was going to give him endless enjoyment is disposed of after a few years. So, he seeks another. Eventually, a person can come to see that all physical pleasures are of a similar nature.
At this juncture, a person has a choice. He can continue as is just looking for the imagined endless pleasure or he can take his energy and now direct it at something greater, higher. It is at this point that he begins to move up the ladder. Since we are human, we can never fully remove our attachment to the physical. But a significant change can take place. It doesn’t have the same attraction for us anymore.
True, we may slip once and a while. We have the image of “angels,” these internal forces, moving up and down the ladder. Progress isn’t always a smooth upward ride. We must be able to deal with setbacks and not let them deter us from our destination. Having a growing and greater relationship with God, signified by ascending the ladder, becoming more attached to the world of ideas by moving further away from the initial physical grounding, always remains the goal. No one is born free of this struggle even our matriarchs and patriarchs. Every human being is designed this way. We can all be successful and move up the ladder if we choose. To say otherwise is to posit a very cruel Creator who fashioned us to fail. The rub is that we must make the effort to get on the ladder and ascend.
The many stones becoming one at the end tells us we can harness our competing desires to accomplish great things and have a meaningful existence. Yaakov takes that stone and dedicates it to building a house of God. He is teaching us that every person can take his energy and direct it. If we choose, we can direct it toward the world of the physical, never stepping up onto the first step of the ladder. We will remain fixed to the world of the physical mired in the realm of running after fleeting pleasures, as the Midrash says, “many stones competing for Yaakov’s head.” Which object will capture Yaakov’s energy and attention?
However, Yaakov is also teaching that this energy can be used to elevate man placing him in a realm increasingly more removed from the physical. It is within that realm that man experiences real pleasure and security. In that process, a person attains a growing and closer relationship with God. The ladder has many steps. Each one brings us a little higher. True the ladder is never-ending and, in that sense, almost seems hopeless but the greater loss is never to have stepped on the ladder at all.
When we think of our founding patriarchs and matriarchs, we imagine their lives were easy and smooth. God was with them. Their lives were straight forward, simple, and clear. Not so. The conflicts Yaakov struggled with are ours as well. They caused him to reflect on his personality and his life’s goals as should ours. He realized that to advance he would have to make personal changes. The reward would be an eternal relationship with God. The Torah, in relating Yaakov’s journey, teaches us about the journey we must take to advance our own lives, one rung at a time.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan