In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob had left his home at his father’s insistence to go to stay with his uncle Laban. Isaac did this because Rebecca was worried that Jacob would marry a Canaanite woman. Rebecca preferred that Jacob marry someone from her side of the family. Needless to say, the familial relationships in Genesis are complicated.
But what is interesting about the journey is when Jacob is traveling. As the Torah says, “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground at its top reached the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:10-13).
What Jacob witnessed is what has been classically referred to as the Stairway to Heaven. The concept of the stairway to heaven has been popularized in art, liturgy, prose, and even music. Perhaps the most famous example being Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit by the same name.
But what is often lost is a revolutionary religious idea. Here, the Torah is proposing that there is a constant link between heaven and earth. Or even more significantly, that there is a direct connection between humanity and God. For when Jacob awoke he proclaimed, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”
Jacob was proclaiming that God would be with him in all of his journeys. This is revolutionary because pretty much all other Ancient Near Eastern religions had local gods. These local gods had local shrines or temples. When these shrines or temples were destroyed, so too the religions tended to disappear.
Not so for the Israelites and later the Jews. Our God is always with us, no matter where our journeys or our wanderings take us. This notion was a source of comfort to Jacob and has been a source of comfort to us ever since.
As Jews, we have often had to flee at a moment’s notice. Our Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not once, but twice. Our people have been persecuted time and time again. And yet, as we learn from Jacob’s dream, God is always with us. We just need to know how to seek out the Divine.
Now we can debate and discuss what each of our concepts of God is or perhaps what God isn’t. However, the consistent belief that there is God by our side through every step of our journeys as individuals and people is a core part of our tradition.
May all of our journeys on this Shabbat and every day be ones that provide us, like Jacob, with moments of illumination, insight and inspiration.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff