The sky is blue; everyone learns that at a very young age. The sky is blue, the grass is green and the clouds are white.
When you draw your parents a picture to hang on the refrigerator, you scribble green squiggles at the bottom and blue ones at the top. Then, you take your white colored pencil and make U-shaped lines that wrap in a circle to make a cloud.
But then, when you get older, you learn that the sky isn’t blue at all. It looks blue because of the way that the gas molecules in the air absorb and radiate light. And clouds are not white; they’re accumulations of water molecules that reflect sunlight. In the duration of one science class, your basic knowledge of the world around you is torn to shreds.
When I was little, I used to love this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei. It tells the story of Jacob’s dream about angels and the ladder that reaches to heaven.
I always imagined the ladder to be either gold or a rich wood, like mahogany. I don’t know why. Then, you have these angels, which of course I can’t help but picture anything much different than the angel I see on the costume wall at Party City.
So you have this ornate ladder that starts at the ground, “the top reaching the heavens” (Genesis 28:12), and little white angels going up and down. It was weird and abstract and beautiful and confusing all at the same time.
What was once a gorgeous dream, though, has recently become an arena for questioning. Angels can fly, so why do they need a ladder? If G-d is everywhere, then why would the ladder go up so far? Is there anything at the top of the ladder?
There’s a slight discomfort in questioning this story that I used to find so enchanting. But it’s important to question and to learn, so let’s see if we can debunk this mystery.
Because it’s a very basic Jewish belief that G-d is everywhere, I am going to assume that the ladder does not, in fact, lead to G-d. So, then, why climb to the sky?
I’m taking a course this semester called “Thinking About Religion,” and we actually just covered a section covering meanings of sky as they pertain to religion. Our textbook says the sky symbolizes six different things: transcendence, omniscience, regularity, power, fertility and ascension.
I don’t think it’s necessary to decide which of these things our ladder leads to, nor do I think I’m capable of making such a decision. I can say that, aside from fertility, we pursue all six of these things in our daily lives – in going to school, cleaning up your desk, running for that board position and striving for that promotion. Each corresponds to a small step towards eventual omniscience, regularity, power and ascension.
Transcendence may be a little bit more of a stretch, but here’s a try: Studying, practicing, working, reading and exercising are all things that people do daily in order to better themselves. The end goal is to be the best “you” possible; anything beyond that, and you’ve reached transcendence, experiencing something beyond what is physically possible. So it would seem that the ladder connects us, on earth, to our ultimate goals, in the sky.
With all of that in mind, I would like you to think about the month ahead. For students, the future looks bleak: The upcoming weeks will consist of late nights cooped up in the library trying to finish final papers and study for exams. At times, it will seem unbearable, borderline claustrophobic with the hundreds of notecards, stacks of textbooks, months’ worth of notes and overwhelming feeling that you just can’t do it all.
Even in the fourth grade, I used to get panic attacks about work. I would look at a math worksheet, and a wave of anxiety would run through my body. The numbers, the variables, the x over the number, the paragraph-long word problem, and then the numbers that just sat innocently on the side of the page telling you which was problem no. 1 and which was problem no. 7…they’d all spin. I kid you not, I would feel like those numbers were moving, just trying to make my work more difficult.
My dad would always try to sit down and help me. He’d isolate the first one, but the whole time he spoke, I was still in a frozen panic over the whole sheet. He’d tell me to take it in little bites, but that was something I never understood, and I would usually end up yelling at him and crying out of frustration.
And that was just fourth grade math. How do you think I deal with these larger things like transcendence, omniscience, regularity, power and ascension? Not well.
I think it’s safe to assume, though, that everyone struggles with long-term, overarching goals. How nice would it be if we were given a straight path with clear steps that led us to our eventual achievement? Maybe, say, a ladder?
Jacob’s dream is a message about all of this. Yes, angels can fly, but they walk up and down the ladder to show us the path and just how simple it is. So, if the sky is our goal, the ladder is our path and the angels are depictions of G-d, then the message is as follows:
Have faith in G-d, and He will lead you and ensure you succeed in whatever you do.
BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / For the Atlanta Jewish Times
Rachel LaVictoire is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.