We ran and laughed like soft mad children, drunk with the feelings, from that place in the mind, that place where you feel again the safe cotton willowy breaths of infancy. We ran the twenty-ish feet off the pier in to the silk-soft water, under that cool jeweled moon of last June. Words have not yet been created that can contain and carry the currency of communication that experiences can and often do.
They like to call ’em “kids at risk,” teenagers with the wild-child gene. I call them mis… well, not even MISunderstood, that would be more like James Dean, but just totally NOT understood. I understand them though. Feed them what they need and they’ll drink it like a drug.
We sat then on the edge of the dock with our feet, and the bottom part of our jeans, in the water, and we spoke of life and Torah.
There is always, in the stories of life, the current and the undercurrent. The Torah is full of stories, but it’s so not about the stories. The rabbis have spent the last many centuries seeking out the undercurrent of those stories. Imagine standing outside on the street. You hear the muffled sounds of the pumping music, and you see the flashing lights through the window. Well, that’s because you’re outside the party- that’s the story. You open the door, step inside, and close the door behind you. Now you’re in the party. That’s the undercurrent.
This Shabbos, we will read the story of Yaakov running. He takes refuge from his own brother, Esav, who has “kill brother Yaakov” on his bucket list, for about twenty years at the house of his uncle, Lavan. One day, Yaakov has a vision of sorts, and a message of spirituality comes to him that says, “Look what Lavan has done to you. You’re looking at all your growing herd of sheep (wealth in those days). I am the G-d of Bethel, where you made me a covenant and built for me a monument of your promise.” Yaakov collects his family and makes tracks in the dead of the night. He can’t wait until morning. He’s gotta go now.
That’s the story. Here’s the undercurrent. What’s special about Bethel? Why was this moment of clarity for Yaakov evocative for him of Bethel?
In Bethel, Yaakov slept the night without even a pillow. He used a stone. That’s because he had just been mugged by Elifaz, Esav’s son. Elifaz was meant to kill him by instruction of his father, but he didn’t quite want to do that so he took all of his possessions instead.
There, penniless, Yaakov had a vision of… well… a stairway to heaven, i.e., the how, the pathway- not a ramp but a ladder or stairway of sorts- where it’s a step by step process to get to ‘heaven,’ i.e., to spirituality. And on that stairway to heaven, he saw ‘angels,’ i.e., ways of connectivity to Hashem, ascending- that would get him there- and descending, bringing that spirituality back to earth. He, Yaakov, then began his life’s purpose, with that understanding, of becoming the father of the Jewish people. (We are called the “sons of Yisrael/Israel,” which is another name for Yaakov, not the sons of Avraham/Abraham or Moshe/Moses or King David or anyone else.)
It is written, “It’s easier for a man who has nothing (materialistically) to be idealistic.” Yaakov had nothing then. But things changed. Now he began to see his wealth growing. He heard Hashem calling out to him in a dream- a vision, an understanding of sorts- and He said, “I am THAT G-d, the G-d of Bethel,” i.e., remember when you had nothing and had a vision of spirituality? That stairway? Look what Lavan has done to you: changed your thinking, your prioritization. Poison. Every second you stay longer now, it’s another drop of poison in your soul.
Shortly after his departure, Yaakov knows he’s approaching his brother Esav. He doesn’t run. He prepares himself. How does he prepare? There’s a short story of what he does practically, some defense measures. But then it says that that night, before he would confront Esav, he went to the “other side of the river”, the dark side, and he “wrestles” with the “angel” of Esav all night until he proves to be unbeatable by it.
There is a famous commentary of the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) that tells us that there was no physical wrestle and there was no physical angel. Yaakov was wrestling in his own head with the MESSAGE, the value, the poison of the values of Esav- the same poison he was currently running away from. We know this from the dialogue between them the next day. Well again, not the dialogue per se, but what Chazal, our Sages, tell us was the undercurrent of that dialogue. Esav said- after the initial standard “hey, how are you?”- “I have a lot,” connoting that “I can use more.” Then Yaakov responds, “I have everything.” Clearly, no human being has ever had ‘everything.’ You would have to own the planet and the universe to literally have everything, but the connotation is, “I don’t want or need anything more than what I presently have, not even a little.”
The value poison of the ways of Esav couldn’t touch him anymore. All that glitters was no longer gold to him and all he wanted to be able to buy back was that stairway to heaven. Only then, Chazal tell us, did Esav become powerless over him. Only then.
I was finished so I just stopped talking and we sat in silence, except for the wish-wash sound of our feet swinging back and forth in the water. We were in that place in the mind. The place where new pathways are laid. New pathways of thinking, of seeing yourself and the world and your life agenda. It’s mighty stuff, that.
He finished his beer. We had been sitting in silence for about five minutes then, and he asked, “How does that manifest, like in life, how does that concept manifest?”
I said, “In the smallest, smallest, of ways. Sometimes in big ways too, but usually… usually in how much time you have for a child, your own or someone else’s; in how motivated you’ll find yourself to sit down in the morning after praying for a few minutes to learn some Torah; in how, and where, you spend your money; in how you begin to feel about that little pipe you keep in your pocket; in what’s important to you in your own head… Get it?”
“Wow,” he said, and we turned to go.
I pulled him back down and said, “Listen, we don’t have saints, in the Torah I mean, it’s not a Torah concept this saints thing. The Torah was written for, and about, real people who had real emotions with real feelings, wants, desires, urges, just like you, just like me. I mean… okay, different than you and me maybe, but the same concept though. Yaakov, he wasn’t born the person he became. He became the person he became. What made them who they were, the greats in the Torah, were their reactions to themselves. There’s only three big poisons in life: lust, money and ego. They all, for sure, have their healthy place in the human experience, but like fire, they need to be contained, and not overfed. Well, if you want stories of PEOPLE, yeah people, who confronted those things, look to Yosef, Yaakov and Moshe.”
He gave me a hug, told me I was a rock star and that I should one day write a song and call it, “Stairway to Heaven.”
by Yehuda Schwab