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Jacob’s Ladder and the Decline of Conservative Judaism

Excerpted from a sermon by Rabbi Weintraub on Shabbat Vayetze 5779, November 17, 2018

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

Vayetze Ya’akov Mib’er Sheva, Va’yelech Charana
So Jacob departed from Be’er Sheva, and journeyed on to Charan.

(Genesis 28:10)

At the beginning of our Torah portion, Jacob uproots himself. Yes, he is running away from the murderous wrath of his brother, Esau, who he has swindled out of their father’s final blessing. But we should recall that otherwise Jacob is leaving not only home, but a place that is all around pretty good. His father is not only the outstanding male spiritual personality of his generation, but also a very respected and wealthy man. His home is run by his eminently resourceful and effective mother, Rebecca, who prefers and dotes on Jacob. According to the Midrash, Jacob has also studied, for twenty years, every day, in the academy of Shem and Eiver, the two most learned and pious monotheistic scholars of their time. That Yeshiva we imagine was warm and pleasant, full of devout Hebrews who were engaged in study and good deeds.

But Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva, and enters an outside world. There, things are not at all as they were in his old world. He must struggle to survive in an environment full of material and moral pitfalls, where he has to abide daily the control of his swarmy uncle, Lavan.

Jacob is the third Patriarch, founder of our people, the eponymous ancestor whose mature name Israel we will take for our nation. But the question that arises in this story is universal. How does a person react when he leaves his comfort zone, his own small world, and is faced with a harsh, new reality?

I know this loss. Until the age of sixteen, I studied in Yeshiva. There, my roughly twenty classmates remained mostly the same from age five through sixteen. We knew not only each other’s learning styles, but each other’s habits, idiosyncrasies, jokes, hobbies, parents, life style, clothing. My life at home was warm and nurturing, full of love and learning, good deeds, Jewish ritual and Jewish prayer. Every day I came home, enjoyed Hydrox cookies and milk, did my homework and sometimes even turned to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law to check on what prayers or obligations I might have that night or the next day. Things were mostly good, and each day brought the same comfortable, observant routine.

Then, at sixteen, I transferred to a large, extremely diverse, public high school of 2700 students. Nobody there knew the rites and routines, the diets and obligations that had filled every day of my life until then. Two years later I moved on to a small, elite liberal arts college which was at best skeptical, at worst completely dismissive of the religious background of students like me.

Leaving home is always difficult. When we leave a home, we leave a space we love. The pain and sadness of losing that space is part of what makes us human. Still, ironically, how we react to that loss can deepen our wisdom and sensitivity.

Leaving, departure can be an opportunity. The great religious texts of our tradition were composed, studied, and refined in exile. In fact, as we’ve read the last five weeks in Torah, we were born in exile. Abraham is told “Lech L’cha, go out! Leave your homeland, your birthplace, your father’s house.” (Genesis 12:1) For the next five books of Torah, we are dreaming and moving towards a Promised Land. Yet the Book in which we finally arrive there, the Book of Joshua, is not included in the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Torah. The book of arrival, of landing is far less important, less known, and less venerated than the books of wandering and search.

So what does this Torah of exile teach us? How do you leave your comfort zone and engage a more complicated and discordant reality? Sometimes, the first reaction is one of shock. When you sit in the Beit Midrash, in Yeshiva, or in Shul, you come into contact primarily with other people like you. You can go for years interacting deeply only with people in your bubble, people who share your outlook, your memories, your customs.

This is why G-d, even before Egypt, before the desert wanderings, baked the experience of exile into our history. Exile forces you to be creative, to open up. In exile, you cannot dismiss the experience and aspirations of broader humanity, even if they spring from motivations which are different from your own. Most important, exile planted into the Jewish heart the conviction that while we may be small and in many ways particular, our mission is to teach, elevate and repair all of humanity.

In some ways today we, Jews who are knowledgeable about and committed to Synagogue life, are facing the same challenge as Jacob at Charan. We are proud and learned inheritors of a precious tradition. We inhabit together a sacred space, and we rejoice in laws and customs which have brought joy and dignity to our people for thousands of years. But now we do all this within a larger, aggressively secular environment and the skeptics outside are not heathens but members of our own family.

Jacob eventually met this challenge by surviving and growing spiritually even in the mendacious world of Charan. He built for himself a large family who he educates to follow his moral vision. So it should be with us. This moment calls for public and creative embrace of those beyond our immediate circle. Even small acts—teaching someone a prayer, inviting someone to a Shabbat meal, marching together as Jews in a social justice demonstration—each of these acts build a circle of Emunah, of faith, and these in turn can inspire other circles.

There is a wonderful Midrash in Genesis Rabbah on the story of Jacob’s ladder. There, the Rabbis note that the Torah describes the angels as olim v’yordim bo, ascending and descending on it, usually understood as on the ladder. But the Midrash suggests that olim v’yordim bo means ascending and descending b’Ya’akov, on Jacob. They were going up and down on Jacob, jumping on Jacob himself, afzim bo, kofzim bo, sontim bo, exalting him, but also leaping on him and maligning him. Why?

The Midrash quotes a verse from Isaiah (49:3), “Israel in whom I will be glorified”. Jacob has a glorious calling, but here, despite his lofty mission, he is fast asleep!

Jacob is the ladder which bridges the gap between Heaven and earth. He has work to do. His dream in this Parsha reminds him that there are lower worlds and higher worlds and his privilege as the progenitor of Israel is to raise the inhabitants of the lower to the realms of the higher.

There is a path which connects the lower worlds and the higher worlds and that path did not just pass through Jacob in the Negev desert 3000 years ago. It passes through each of us every day.

We are present day Jacobs. At one time Synagogue Jews lived in a self-contained world, sharing an insular but organic life. Today, the world no longer allows us to live in that small sphere, in the company of people mostly the same as us. Our Jewish world, here in downtown Brooklyn as in much of our country, is 90% full of Jews who while valuing Jewishness generally, still feel ignorant and alienated in traditional Synagogue environments.

What will we do to face this challenge?

The angels of G-d are jumping up and down on us, but unfortunately many are sleeping. Sadly, our own Conservative movement has been singularly unimaginative in facing this reality. Leaders in many Conservative Congregations have preferred to talk amongst themselves, in familiar categories and with outdated assumptions, rather than face the world around them. As a result, the movement is facing demise. From its height of 800 affiliated Congregations in 1965, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism now includes 600, and the remaining Synagogues are often smaller and older. In 1971, 41 percent of affiliated American Jews were Conservative. By 2014, the number had dropped to 18 percent.

The story of Parshat Vayetze is a story about us. The problem of going to sleep is a problem that we all face. Let us honor the solution and the meaning which Jacob found. He sees a vision of a ladder, one end in the sky and the other on earth, but he can only discern the meaning of that vision because he has left his home.

The meaning of this ladder, of the Jewish mission only makes ultimate sense in the outside world. Jacob, the Midrash says, studied for twenty years in the Academy of Shem and Eiver, where he excelled, but he did not see angels there, he did not see the ladder there, he did not understand there how important he was to the world. He assumed that he could remain inside his holy box, looking after himself and others like him.

The Midrash says that the angels recognized Jacob, sleeping near the ladder’s base, because there was an ikonan,an image of Jacob engraved in Heaven. The task of the Jew is to make sure that our image below, on this earth, corresponds to the image of us on High. Paradoxically, we only understand that by going outside.

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