Healing Service Sermon by Rabbi Lewis
December 11, 2005
|I have been thinking for months about how to dedicate a lift; do we smash a bottle of champagne over it and yell bon voyage? Do we light an oil lamp or candles, like our ancestors did on Chanukah when they rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem? Do we tack up a mezuzah on it and kiss the mezuzah before we get on or off? I asked other rabbis whether they have ever dedicated a lift and what they did; they said, when you figure it out, let us know because we’d like to know, too.
So I turned to yesterday morning’s Torah portion. We read a well-known story about Jacob. After tricking his brother Esau, he fled from Beer Sheva and set out for Haran. “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream: a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God – olim v’yordim -were going up and down on it.” The old translation called this dream the dream of Jacob’s ladder.
Famous artists have painted this dream, with angels going up and down on the ladder. But in the Midrash, the rabbis pointed out a problem in the text; if angels live up in the heavens, shouldn’t the text have said they were going down and up, not up and down? They offered one possible solution; maybe there are certain angels who are with you when you are in the land of Israel and another set of angels who are with you when you are outside the land of Israel. This might have been a shift change; the angels who had been with Jacob when Jacob was in Israel had to leave as he was leaving, so they went up and were replaced by the new set of angels coming down. That’s why it says olim v’yordim, they were going up and down. The rabbis offered another idea: maybe this language was a secret code. The angels weren’t really angels, they represented the powerful nations of the world – Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. These were all nations that had started wars that affected the course of Jewish history. They were all based on military might. They all began at the bottom of the ladder and reached the top where they collapsed and fell back down to earth because nations based on war cannot survive. The strength of a nation must be based on values that endure, not military might.
It occurs to me that, if the rabbis had known we were praying for healing today, they have offered a third interpretation of olim v’yordim; that we all have ups and downs, including the most illustrious of our ancestors, but that God is present to us at all times, in the ups and in the downs. But indulge me as I offer a fourth interpretation. You might have guessed by now that this phrase – olim v’yordim – going up and down – inspired me to think that the Torah is clearly speaking about a lift; our lift is our stairway to heaven. You go up and down on it. If you are at the bottom, it takes you up; if you are at the top, it takes you down. It doesn’t really matter where you start; it matters where you end up.
The great thing about midrash is you can pick the interpretation you like – I like this last one, myself – but that still doesn’t tell us how to dedicate a lift. So back to the text. In the dream, God is standing next to Jacob and makes a promise: “Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go…” Jacob wakes up and says to himself: “Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati – Surely God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” I thought: We sometimes live as if we were asleep until something wakes us up and makes us pay attention. And then, if we are lucky, we see what was there all along. For Jacob, it was his dream that made him wake up; for us, it was the waking up to the congregation’s needs that made us create our dream. How does the story of Jacob’s ladder end? “Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it and named the site Beth El, house of God.” The stone was for him a reminder of God’s presence; and that is what our synagogue is for us. We don’t have to pour oil on our lift or champagne or tack up a mezuzah; that lift is our mezuzah. It is a reminder to us of God’s presence. We just have to be awake to it as we enter this synagogue and we will remember that surely God is with us inside the synagogue and outside, in our ups and in our downs, wherever we let God in.
May we be blessed as we go on our way; may we be guided in peace; may we be blessed with health and joy; may this be our blessing, amen.