Finding Angels to Draw us Toward the Heavens

Parashat VaYeitzei

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on November 24, 2017

Rabbi Max and I returned from Israel on Tuesday. After an intense 8 days of meetings, lectures, and study. We met with settlers, Members of Knesset on the right and the left, Palestinians, specialists in the Middle East’s political climate, Reform and Masorti Rabbis, Orthodox rabbis, and Diplomats from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign affairs…just to name a few. 

I’ve heard from many speakers in these categories before, but whenever I begin a journey to Israel I always wonder what will be different and what will be the same. Will we have progressed or taken steps back in religious pluralism? Will the climate between Palestinians and Jews have shifted? Will people smile at me on the streets? Will I take a deep breath and feel the power of the Jerusalem air? Will I feel connected to the eretz, with the land? Will the hummus be as good as I remembered? 

Similarly, before I study the weekly parashah I always wonder what will be different and what will be the same. Of course the Hebrew text won’t have changed, but perhaps the way I translate the text or understand the translation will have shifted. Perhaps the piece of the parasha that sticks out to me will be different than it was the last year or the year before that. Truly, I don’t want Israel to be the same and I don’t want the text I study to be the same either. I want to feel something different, to learn something different, to have a different experience.

So this week, when I sat down to study the parashah, clearing my desk to make room for my Torah and favorite texts, I wondered what would stand out, especially in light of having just returned from Israel. So I began reading:

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה׃

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. 

וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי־בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.

Ah, how interesting, when I arrived in Israel two Sundays ago, we landed just as the sun was setting. Thankfully, we did not settle into a corner of Ben Gurion airport for the night, but instead, our group took a taxi into Jerusalem to begin our program.

וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא׃

Taking one of the stones of that place, [Jacob] put it under his head and lay down in that place. 

Here too, I empathize with Jacob. After those long flights to get you to Israel you are so tired. You’ve half-slept in some awkward position on the flight for a few hours here and there and even a rock sounds like a lovely place to lay your head once you land.

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה

[Jacob] had a dream; a stairway/ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky,

 וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ׃

and angels of God were going up and down on [the ladder]. 

We have reached the famous dream — Jacob’s ladder. Here we are, the scene is set. Jacob is asleep on a rock, in some place — which we don’t know where he is because it’s after sunset and it’s dark and so the writers don’t say where he is — and he has a dream in which a stairway or a ladder reaches up toward the heavens as angels of God go up and down the ladder.

The text first says the angels went up עֹלִים same root as aliyah. If the angels are first ascending the ladder, that means they started here on earth. We would think that they began in the heavens and therefore יֹרְדִים, descended, would come first, but it doesn’t. From this we learn that we can act like angels here on the earth. Thus, when we encounter those who are like angels, we ascend spiritually toward the heavens.

From this trip to Israel I could pick so many different people who were like angels — who were those movers and shakers that are bringing us closer to the heavens. There was Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Chazzan Yair Harel, spiritual leaders of the Masorti congregation, Tzion in Jerusalem where they are creating a new sound for Judaism. They have a system of listening to one another and the souls of their congregation so that they can lead a progressive community toward purpose and meaningful prayer. They are providing an accessible Judaism outside the box of Orthodox-normativity in Jerusalem. Though I learned more about them, I knew they existed, I had an idea of the holy work that they were doing for progressive Jews in Jerusalem. When I asked myself the question, “Will we have progressed or taken steps back in Religious Pluralism?” I did not receive an answer based on the results of polls or statistics. Instead, I believe in the words of Rabbi Appelbaum, “I believe in the future, and it doesn’t have to look like the present.” The strides of religious pluralism are not captured in polls, but are truly seen in the encounters we have with those who are experiencing both the progress and the regression. But as faith leaders we were reminded to believe in the future of Jerusalem, it doesn’t have to look like the present in which we are not fully recognized.

There was another angel I encountered on this trip. His name is Rabbi Menachem Bombach. To the question of “What will be different in the land of Israel,” Rabbi Bombach came to us with answers I didn’t expect. Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a Haredi Jew, so the fact that he even met with us was a really special highlight of the possibilities for pluralism in Jerusalem. Meeting with us puts his authority in danger since so many in that community view us as heretics. 

Rabbi Bombach created a Yeshiva for Haredi and Hasidic boys to learn secular subjects and life skills for the purpose of being able to contribute to Israeli society, in addition to their dedicated study of Jewish texts. His efforts have been met with expulsion from his community, having grown up in Mei Sharim he cannot go back without being brutally attacked. They will literally run into the streets screaming “Bombach! Bombach!” as they throw rocks and fists in his direction. Yet he persists. He believes so fully in the ability to be both Haredi and contribute to society. But there is great fear. Fear of Haskalah, of Enlightenment, that secular studies will cause the boys to lose their dedication to being Haredi. It is fear that they will become secular or like the Reform Jews. And you know what, it could happen! Rabbi Bombach knows that it is a possibility but he simultaneously holds up his belief that they will remain Haredi and that this is truly the only way for Haredi life to be preserved. He doesn’t believe that the status quo of uneducated Haredi men can continue, and he doesn’t want life to be so black and white, to be either secular or Haredi. But rather that you can be Haredi, and work in the secular world without corrupting the other identity. I’m not sure what that will look like in 10 years. As a non-Haredi individual, my assumption is that the secular education will in fact influence the way they live their life, but the impact of his work won’t truly be known for another 10 or 20 years.

Hearing his approach and some of the statistics we heard from other presenters during this trip was like reading a Torah portion for the tenth time and understanding it in a way you have never understood it before. Sure, five years ago there was talk about some organizations here and there helping Haredi people to receive secular educations, but because the education was so late in life and the people were so far behind, the dropout rates were atrocious. Birthrates were still climbing, and hope for the Haredi community to contribute to society, even five years ago, was miniscule.

But after this trip, it seems like the conversation is shifting. There are still great barriers, but for the first time, it sounds like things are going in the right direction. The community has become more educated about family planning, leading to a decrease in birthrates. People like Rabbi Bombach are establishing ways for boys (and soon girls) to receive an education that can lead them toward meaningful contribution to society. These are the kinds of changes that have the potential to change the landscape of Israel.

These shifts are what we are looking for — the status quo of Israeli society cannot remain the same. Tonight I have only touched on a few pieces of religious pluralism, but there are many more aspects of the topic that should be unpacked and discussed. Rabbi Appelbaum and Rabbi Bombach are angels for change in Jerusalem. They are here on this earth and stepping up the ladder trying to take us closer to the heavens.  As Jacob nears the end of his dream, God says to him, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” As we seek comfort on this journey to find the angels in our life and the angels for change in Israel, we remember that God is a part of this journey, that we are not alone, and that change is possible.