Keep on Climbing

Jacob’s Ladder, by Jacques Stella, Date: 1650.

In the section of the Pentateuch that will be read in synagogue this coming Sabbath [Genesis 28:10 – 32.3], the patriarch Jacob is traveling, on rather short notice, to spend time with his uncle, his mother’s brother. His brother, Esau, is angry with Jacob. He wants to kill him but decides to defer acting on that impulse until after their father Isaac dies.

I sleep using a pillow filled with organic buckwheat. It sounds as though it would be uncomfortable, but for me, it’s just the opposite. The buckwheat hulls allow air to flow through the pillow, keeping my head cool on hot Beersheba nights. Because it conforms to the shape of my head, it also prevents morning neck aches and relieves tension in my shoulders. When I travel, the pillow comes with me.

Jacob is traveling with just the basics. There is no pillow in his luggage. Stopping at “a certain place” for the night, he picks a stone to use as a pillow. During the night, and this often happens to me when I am sleeping in a strange place, he has a dream, a rather unusual one. In his translation of Genesis, Robert Alter describes Jacob’s dream as follows:

…and he dreamed, and, look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it.

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company.

In his translation, Alter prefers the word “ramp” over the more commonly found “ladder.” In a footnote, he explains:

a ramp. The Hebrew term occurs only here. Although its etymology is doubtful, the traditional rendering of “ladder” is unlikely. As has often been observed, the references to both “its top reaching the heavens” and “the gate of the heavens” use phrases associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat, and so the structure envisioned is probably a vast ramp with terraced landings.

Alter, Robert. Ibid. Note on Gen. 28:12.

A ziggurat! The reference is quite fitting [though perhaps not as poetic as “ladder”] given Jacob’s location and destination. Here is a reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur, which I found in Wikimedia Commons based on a 1939 drawing by Leonard Woolley, Ur Excavations: Volume V: The Ziggurat and its Surroundings.

Jacob’s dream has been a source of inspiration for many people, from many backgrounds, and different beliefs. Artists have depicted the dream. Here are examples from William Blake and Marc Chagall.

One of my favorite uses of it is in music, as in the the gospel song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Here is a cherished version of the song performed by Bernice Johnson Reagon & Vocal Group and used in Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War.”

Unless you’re an angel, climbing can be challenging. Sometimes your back aches, your legs grow tired, your hands weaken. You can feel as if you might fall. My wish for all of us this week is that we have the strength to keep on climbing. May we hold in the front of our minds the thought that “every round goes higher, higher.”

All the best,
Gershon

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