Every Jewish house of worship echoes the iconic scene in this week’s Torah portion (Vayetze). Jacob takes a rock and places it under his head for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder rising from there to heaven, with angels ascending and descending along it. Jacob wakes with awe and calls the spot Beth El, House of God (Gen. 28:11-14). Every synagogue (whether or not named Beth El) claims a hope that it too can lift a ladder to heaven and uplift us to awe.
Awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” is the wow of spiritual life – a quality of mind and heart that transcends itself, a sense of self (or selflessness) that can reorder reality and make life shine. If awe reliably happened by itself, then every synagogue and every Jew would shine with spiritual glow. Too often, however, it’s just not so. Too often, synagogues are dull and spirituality seems elusive or illusive.
So what does it take to cultivate awe?
One path to awe is panentheism. To modern mystic Arthur Green, the whole world pulses with holiness. At least in potential, every rock could be like Jacob’s rock, the base of a holy ladder. Imagine living that way, as if a stairway to heaven might appear at any moment, from any rock, right before your eyes. Imagining living that way, with a sense of the possible.
Another path is serendipity. This was the answer of the Sforno (Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550). The Sforno taught of dreamy Jacob that he’d wandered to a place that he hadn’t intended to go. It was precisely Jacob’s openness to serendipity – to receive unknown gifts of an unknown place on a road less traveled – that opened Jacob to awe. Imagine living that way, with a sense of spiritual adventure.
A third path is surrender. This was the answer of the Radak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235). The Radak taught that Jacob spent the night in that spot because he was too tired to walk any further, so he surrendered to both sleep and to trust that he would be safe there. It was precisely Jacob’s surrender – to not try to control what might happen – that opened Jacob to awe. Imagine living that way, with a sense of trust.
So which is it – possibility, spiritual adventure or trust? Which is it – feeling everywhere and everything pulse with holiness, being spiritually playful, or surrendering to what might unfold spiritually? Maybe all of these?
The story of Jacob’s ladder maybe doesn’t offer a clear answer, but it asks a clear question of everyone who cares about spirituality and Judaism: where is awe in your life? Whether with philosophy, adventure or trust, that kind of spiritual life is worth seeking. Who knows: maybe from every rock a spiritual ladder really can uplift you into awe.
Rabbi David Evan Markus