Parshas Vayeitzei (5770)
It has been said that there are four stages in a person's life:
(1) When he believes in Santa Claus
(2) When he no longer believes in Santa Claus
(3) When he dresses up like Santa Claus
(4) When he looks like Santa Claus.
Believing that there really is a Santa Claus is one of those things that all (non-Jewish) parents hope their child will do for a couple of years till about six or seven (?) years of age, and then, hopefully, he'll figure out the real truth ..... that the fat guy in the red suit coming down the chimney is about as real as the Tooth Fairy or the Grinch!
When their daughter is three years old, and she's sitting impatiently near the tree, waiting for Santa to fill up her stocking with Barbie Dolls and Barney videos – the parents just smile and think it's cute. But when she's already ten, and she still thinks that the white-bearded, roly-poly man with the reindeer at the mall really lives at the North Pole, they start getting real nervous. So they tell her, "Silly girl, Santa is for kids! But now you are almost an adult, so you shouldn't be taking that legend seriously!"
Well, I think that for many Jews today, the Torah and its many "legends" and commandments and "rituals", have much in common with Saint Nick. We send our kids to Jewish Day School, or to Hebrew School, where they are taught about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and about Moses and the Burning Bush, and about all the Jewish holidays and the miracles that occurred during those times ..... but we often don't take those stories and events too seriously. We tend to doubt that any of this stuff ever really occurred, and we (often subconsciously) hope that, as they grow older, our children will move past the stage where they believe that everything that they were taught in Hebrew school really happened.
"JACOB AND THE BEANSTALK"
Let me give you an illustration of this phenomenon using a fascinating "story" found in the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Parshas Vayeitzei:
"Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. And behold! G-d was standing over him, and He said, "I am the G-d of Abraham your father and G-d of Isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your descendants." (Genesis 28:10-13)
Interesting legend ... Jacob falls asleep and, in his dream, he sees this really tall ladder that goes all the way up to the sky. Hmmmm ... sounds remotely similar to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk!
Now ..... what happens is that our kids learn about "Jacob's ladder" in Hebrew School, and they even make a nice little art project in which a paper cutout of Jacob sleeping is pasted at the bottom, and a huge ladder goes up to the top of the picture where a few white clouds are drawn. Our kids bring this project home, and we ask them to explain to us what it represents, and when they tell us the whole story of the ladder going up to the sky and G-d's revelation to Jacob, we smile at them and think that it's all rather amusing. Ho! Ho! Ho!
But do we really believe that it's true? Did any of these Bible stories actually take place? And if we don't take these stories so seriously, do we really want our kids to believe them? Or is this all just another Santa deal ... let the kids think it's real until one day when they will hopefully grow out of it.
JEWISH HISTORY AND THE "FOUR KINGDOMS"
The fact is, that for the better part of our history (and that covers about 3320 years!), Jews did take the Torah stories and all that they represented very seriously. And not just as children in Hebrew School, but as mature, sophisticated adults.
As a matter of fact, all of the greatest Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including the likes of Maimonides and Luzzato, believed in the truth of the Torah and its account of history, well beyond their childhood years. And they not only believed in the truth of the stories themselves, but they passed down traditions that they had received from earlier generations regarding the symbolism and interpretation of those stories.
An early Midrashic source, Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, interprets the Biblical account of Jacob's vision of the ladder reaching heavenward with angels ascending and descending on it, in an amazing way:
Jacob was being symbolically shown the Four Kingdoms that would, after Egyptian bondage, successively "ascend" to subjugate Israel, and then "descend", and fall from power. The angels accordingly represent the "guardian angels" of the nations that are chosen by G-d to be the "rod of His anger" by becoming His earthly agents to punish Israel.
Accordingly, Jacob was shown the angel of the Babylonian Empire ascending 70 rungs [one for each year that Israel would be subjugated during the Babylonian Exile], and then descending. Then the angel of Media ascended 52 rungs and descended; the angel of Greece climbed 180 rungs and descended, representing the years of their respective domination of Israel.
Jacob was then shown the angel of Edom (Rome). [Traditionally, this refers to the current, lingering exile amid Western civilization]. Edom ascended an undetermined number of steps, boasting that he would climb to the utmost heights and be like G-d Himself, but Jacob did not see him descend. [This uninterrupted ascendancy alluded to the unspecified duration of the Edomite exile.] Jacob became frightened that Edom's dominion would last forever ... G-d assured him that Edom's angel would ultimately cease [for as G-d assured Jacob in verse 15 (ibid.), He would be with Jacob - throughout his descendants' exiles - to guard him wherever he would go, and return him to the Land of Israel.]
As you can see from the Midrash, this "story" of Jacob's ladder was taken very seriously by our great Bible commentators and philosophers ... so much so that they actually read into the story a foretelling of the entire destiny of the Jewish people! Now that's a far cry from Jack and the Beanstalk!!!
So ..... and this is the big question ….. how has it come to pass that for the better part of our history as a people, all Jews (with few exceptions) - learned and ignorant, young and old, religious and irreligious - have believed in and accepted as true all the Bible stories as well as their interpretations ... and yet, today, we have "Santa-fied" (that's the opposite of "sanctified") these Torah stories to the point where we teach them to our kids as part of their Jewish education, but we hope they don't continue to believe in them as they grow up?
And now that there already exists this dichotomy between what all of our ancestors believed to be the truth and what we believe in today, as well as between what we allow our kids to be taught in school as "truth" and what we ourselves believe in as adults ... we must ask ourselves what is probably the most important question of all ... is the Torah true or not?
Is it just another Grimm's Fairy Tale or did Moses really go up on Mount Sinai and chat with G-d? Did the Chanukah miracle actually take place as our tradition teaches us, and like all our great-grandparents once believed in and celebrated - or are we just getting fat on all those oily latkes for no good reason?
Well ... did it all happen as they say in the Books, or didn't it? And, if it did happen, are there any proofs?
"PERMISSION TO RECEIVE"
This being such an important question for every Jew to explore at least at some point in his or her life, it certainly can't be fully addressed and done justice to within the parameters of a (relatively) short Torah e-mail message.
So instead, let me just recommend one very short, but extremely fascinating and thought-provoking, treatment of the subject. The book is called Permission To Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah's Divine Origin, and is written by Rabbi Lawrence Keleman. As Rabbi Keleman writes in his introduction:
"As few as five generations ago, nearly all Jews agreed that G-d revealed the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in the presence of the entire Jewish people. Nearly every Jewish family can trace its roots to ancestors who believed this with all their hearts. Today, however, even those of us who admire the Torah's ethical principles, value its insights, and appreciate the beauty of its practices find it difficult to relate to it as our ancestors did. Those who passionately value both intellectual integrity and their spiritual inheritance; those separated from their heritage only by healthy skepticism will find here permission to receive."
As the official "holiday season" kicks off with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and the subsequent blaring of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and other holiday favorites for hours on end over every P.A. system in every mall in North America, it is certainly a good time for all of us to start thinking about the "santa-fication" of our own religion and the Torah upon which it's based - is this all some kind of folk legend that we teach our kids but don't take seriously ourselves, or maybe our great-grandparents knew more than we give them credit for, and the Torah that they lived by (and died for) is based on truth and on events which actually occurred - and maybe, with a little reading and thinking about this issue, we, too, will find the permission to receive a different outlook on the Torah and on life.