Parshat Vayetze: Genesis 28:10-32:3; Hosea 12;13-14:10.
In this week’s parshah, Jacob is fleeing the only home he has ever known to escape the wrath of his brother Esau.
When he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and Earth. Angels are ascending and descending. To me, this moment represents the in-between, the blurring of the boundary, the crossing of borders.
Ritual theory places tremendous significance on the spiritual experience of boundary crossing. Whether it’s the dramatic elements of Havdalah or the embodied awareness of threshold crossing the mezuzah invites, Judaism is certainly deeply conscious of it.
I have long considered boundary-crossing to be a primary spiritual practice of mine. When I visit inmates in prison, when I cross checkpoints between Israel and the occupied territories, and when I cross 8 Mile Road, these actions facilitate awakening and a profound sense of the unity of all. To be boundary-crossers is our lineage. The word ivrim, Hebrews, can be translated as “the ones who cross.”
Ladders and boundary-crossing come together in a remarkable piece of Talmud. Taanit 28a recounts that when the kingdom of Greece ruled Judea, they forbade the practice of Judaism. In order to prevent the celebration of the pilgrimage festival, they placed guards on the roads to Jerusalem. But the pilgrims outsmarted the guards. They covered their first fruits and assembled the wood for the altar into ladders, lying to the guards about the purpose of their travel. The text concludes: “As soon as they had passed the guards, they dismantled the ladders and took them up to Jerusalem. […]”
What a powerful teaching. Not only are ladders a bridge, a mechanism for border-crossing, but they are also a tool for thwarting an empire. The writer and activist Arundhati Roy once said, “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories.”
About these brave border-crossers the Talmud teaches: “The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing” (Proverbs 10:7).
This Shabbat, as we tell the story of our ancestor dreaming of a ladder crossing the ultimate divide, let us ask ourselves: How can we live out the lineage we inherit as the ivrim, the ones who cross? How do our history and tradition compel us to challenge systems of oppression and domination? In addition to being
the People of the Book, how might we be the People of the Ladder?
Rabbi Alana Alpert is the director of Detroit Jews for Justice.