Vayishlah: Crossing the River

crossing-the-riverMany people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly.

-Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“A Ladder to Heaven”

Worshipping G-d in a foreign land is apparently very difficult. “Whoever lives outside the land it is as if they are worshipping idols” (Ketuvot 110b).

-Rabbi Jay Kelman
“Vayeze: Searching for G-d”
both articles found at
Hasidic Waves blogspot

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone.

Genesis 32:23-25 (JPS Tanakh)

I actually hadn’t planned to write a commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Vayishlah but apparently my intentions don’t always dictate what I end up doing. Actually, the first two commentaries I quoted above are more related to the previous week’s Torah reading where Jacob leaves Canaan to escape his brother Esau and becomes an indentured servant to Laban, all for the sake of winning Rachel for a wife.

But if worshiping God in an alien land is like worshiping idols, what is it like to forsake that foreign land and return to the Land of Promise; the Land God was to give to the descendants of Jacob generations hence?

What is it like to return to community with God’s people in the church?

It ain’t easy.

No, it’s not like I’ve been “worshiping idols” in a “foreign land,” but we all cross thresholds and transverse boundaries.

“For you have wrestled with G-d and man, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

In ancient Near Eastern understanding, the crossing of a river was a symbol of new beginnings and a new start – a sort of rebirth. That is why there is a purposeful connection with the name of the river (Yabok) and the word vaye’avek – to wrestle/struggle. It was here, at the river of a new beginning in Jacob’s life that he also received a new name – and a new identity – Israel.

-Rabbi Joshua Brumbach
“Wrestling with the Divine”
Yinon Blog

I suppose moving an unmovable rock could be considered a “new beginning” but in reality, it’s just one step in a process. Sort of like how Rabbi Goldman describes it:

There is a ladder, a spiritual route clearly mapped out for us; a route that needs to be traversed step-by-step, one rung at a time. The pathway to Heaven is gradual, methodical and eminently manageable.

Many people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly. And yet, with the gradual step-by-step approach, one finds that the journey can be embarked upon and that the destination aspired to is actually not in outer space.

One way some Jewish sages look at Jacob’s Ladder is as the process of prayer. I’ve also mentioned prayer recently, and all of this seems to fit together. Learning to pray is a process but it is also part of a larger process of learning to draw closer to God. A relationship with God, in some ways, is like any other relationship in that its development is not linear. There are closer times and farther apart times. There are sudden rushes of heat and long periods of icy cold. Then there is just tons and tons of lukewarm.

Jacob's-Ladder1Jacob was terrified of the changes he would have to undergo and for good reason, both in leaving Canaan and in returning. In each case, he was facing the unknown. He left Canaan with nothing, and returned with a fortune and a family. Then, he had a personal encounter with God and did not escape it unscathed. As Derek Leman said recently, “The unthinkable can happen. The faith of God’s people will not prevent hard times.” Just because you’re doing God’s will or believe you are, doesn’t mean bad stuff isn’t going to happen.

Where did we get the idea that a life of holiness was also a life of safety?

And yet a life of faith isn’t always immediately fatal, either. Jacob lived to a good old age and died in comfort after blessing his sons, though he died in an alien land, so perhaps worshiping God there was as “dimmed” for him in Egypt as it was in Haran (although God did promise He would go down into Egypt with Jacob – Gen. 46:1-4).

In returning to church, some might say I have returned to the “Holy Land” and others would say I was “worshiping idols.” I suppose both opinions are extreme and reality is somewhere in the middle. But in the middle (and everywhere else), there is God.

Do not forsake me. I am crossing a river. I am wrestling with I don’t know what. I am carrying that which belongs to me. I can’t see what is up ahead.

What do you think is a rabbi’s fantasy? A guy walking into my office and saying, “Rabbi, I want to become ‘frum’ (fully observant), now tell me what I must do”?

Is that what I lie awake dreaming of? And if it did happen, do you think I would throw the book at him and insist he did every single mitzvah from that moment on? Never!

Why not? Because a commitment like that is usually here today and gone tomorrow. Like the popular saying goes, “Easy come, easy go.” I’m afraid I haven’t had such wonderful experiences with the “instant Jew” types.

The correct and most successful method of achieving our Jewish objectives is the slow and steady approach. Gradual, yet consistent. As soon as one has become comfortable with one mitzvah, it is time to start on the next, and so on and so forth.

Then, through constant growth, slowly but surely we become more knowledgeable, committed, fulfilled and happy in our faith.

-Rabbi Goldman

yeshiva1While this commentary is directed as Jews, with just a few adjustments, it can fit the rest of us as well. In pursuing any endeavor, there’s a desire to jump from “A” to “Z” as quickly as possible, but even if it can be done, this quick hop, skip, and jump method might not be the best. Getting there too quickly doesn’t allow us to experience what we need to learn along the way by taking each step slowly and deliberately. Of course, there’s also a matter of direction as Rabbi Goldman tells us.

When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

And so my friends, it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder of religious life. As long as you are moving in the right direction, as long as you are going up, you will, please G-d, succeed in climbing the heavenly heights.

Like Jacob’s ladder, it is not only important to make sure that we carefully place our hands and feet upon every rung, but that we verify we are traveling in the direction that will lead us higher. Like “Jacob’s river,” we must know when in our “new beginning,” we are leaving God’s desired place for us, and when we’re returning, for God sometimes sends us in either direction. How much we have, what we’ve accomplished, and what hardships we must endure after the crossing won’t always tell us where we are and where we’re going. We can only know by keeping our eye on the path…and the goal.

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