Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Jacob’s Ladder and Exile: Comfort Zones vs. Risk

November 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Tanach

Jacob's Ladder by Chagall

Jacob’s Ladder and Exile:  Comfort Zones vs. Risk

 by Yaakov Bieler

           At one point, Adam Gopnick, as part of his discussion about Charles Darwin in his book  entitled, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life (Knopf, New York, 2009) writes that great scientific discoveries are such that when others learn of them, they can’t understand why they hadn’t thought of this innovative idea that explains so many things and appears so obvious. Sometimes a student of Tora has a similar sensation when he comes across an explanation of well-known passages which after-the-fact seems so obvious and conveys an idea of deep significance. This is how I felt when I read R. Amnon Bazak’s[1] insight connecting Yaakov’s vision of the ladder stretching from earth to Heaven and the Tower of Bavel. He points out the following commonalities or complementarities between Beraishit 11 and 28:

                              Tower of Bavel                                 Yaakov’s Ladder

11:4    “…A tower whose top is in   Heaven.” 28:12 “…A ladder standing on the ground and whose top reaches to Heaven
11:3    “…and bricks served them in place of stones.” 28:11 “…And he took from the stones of the place and put them beneath his head.”
11:5    “And God Descended to See the city and the tower that sons of Adam had constructed…” 28:12 “…And behold Angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.”
11:2    “And it was when they journeyed from the east and they found a valley in the land of Shinar.” 29:1   “And Yaakov lifted his feet and went to the land of the children of the east.”
11:4    “…Lest ‘Nafutz’/we be scattered on the face of the entire world.”Ibid., 8-9 “And God Scattered them from there throughout the world and they ceased constructing the city. For this reason its name was called Bavel, because there God Confused the language of the entire land and from there God Scattered them on the face of the entire world.” 28:14 “And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will ‘U’Foratzta’/burst out (a positive terminology for the more negative “scattered”) to the west, to the east, and to the north and to the south.


            The reorientation of how to think about what happened to the Dor HaFlaga (the generation of the Dispersion), is as deeply evocative as it is counter-intuitive.  Since the term for the people who were Divinely “scattered” parallels the manner in which the victims of the Great Flood are referred, i.e., Dor HaMabul, it is usually thought that just as the Flood constituted a punishment for activities that generated God’s Ire, so too the Dispersion was similarly intended. However, in light of the fact that God is Blessing Yaakov when  Telling him that his descendents will be scattered in all directions, the Dispersion following the attempt to build the Tower might also have been a “blessing”, albeit a challenging one, rather than a curse or an experience meant to purge some type of sin.

             It is notable that Yaakov is the twin who not only is told in his prophetic vision at the beginning of Parashat VaYetze that his offspring will be scattered, but that in Parashat Toldot he himself has to leave his familial home in an abrupt and terrifying fashion. After all, Yaakov is originally depicted as (Beraishit 25:27) “…a tent dweller,” in contrast to his brother Eisav, the outdoorsman.[2] Consequently, for Yaakov to be forced to journey far from home, and according to Rabbinic tradition, to spend twelve years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever[3] even before dwelling with Lavan for another twenty plus years, all that time having to be deprived of the    intense love and protection of his mother in particular (Ibid., v. 28),[4] must certainly have been traumatic. But in light of R. Bazak’s reinterpretation of the Tower of Bavel episode, being propelled into the greater world constitutes a challenge and opportunity for growth, rather than a punishment.

            Suddenly, a meta-pattern with regard to man’s natural general destiny becomes clear, a conceptual understanding that transcends the specific events in Yaakov’s life. The expulsion of Adam and Chava from the Garden of Eden appears to at least in part be the result of their transgressing the Divine Imperative not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as per Beraishit 3:17-9;[5] nevertheless it is also possible to posit that remaining within the “cocoon” of the Garden did not allow for mankind to “stretch,” learn about its capacities and weaknesses and maximize its growth potential. Consequently it was inevitable and, in fact in man’s best interests, to have to live elsewhere.[6] [7] Retracing the Creation story to an earlier significant juncture, the Tora appears to insist that while each individual usually begins his life within a secure relationship overseen by his parents, this situation is not intended to continue forever. Following the creation of Chava, Adam’s primordial spouse and mother of all succeeding generations, the Tora’s narrative is suspended for a verse, and the following general directive is inserted:

Beraishit 2:24

Therefore a man must forsake[8] his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they will be one flesh.

Consequently, Yaakov experiences a process that essentially is meant to be replicated in one way or another in the life of every person. Rabbinic literature further envisions how God Requires each individual to enter a situation “outside his comfort zone” by contrasting the periods before and after birth:

 Nidda 30b

And there is no time when a person enjoys greater happiness than those days (in utero), (and nevertheless he is soon expelled into the world outside the womb!) for it is said, (Iyov 29:2) “Oh that I were as the months of old, as in the days when God Watched over me.” Now which are the days that make up months, and do not make up years? The months of pregnancy of course.

It is also taught all of the Tora from beginning to end, (assuming that the happiness experienced by the fetus is not only due to physical security and comfort, but also spiritual knowledge) for it is said, (Mishlei 4:4) “And He Taught me and Said unto me, ‘Let your heart hold fast My Words, keep My Commandments and live’”…

As soon as it sees the light, an angel approaches slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Tora completely, (resulting in the conclusion that when a Jew studies Tora, he is not doing so for the first time, but rather engages in a type of “déjà vu” process, arising from a dislocation taking him from a conscious state of knowledge, to at best an unconscious one) as it is said, (Beraishit 4:7) “…Sin crouches at the door…”[9] 

An even more evocative Rabbinic passage that poetically locates the beginning of this process of disorientation to a point prior to each individual’s veritable conception appears in a Midrash:

Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Pekudei #3

(Following the creation of the physical aspect of the future person) Immediately the angel goes and brings the spirit/Ruach before the Holy One, Blessed be He. When it comes, it immediately “bends its knee and prostrates itself” before the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He. At that moment the Holy One, Blessed be He says to the Ruach, “Enter into the seminal fluid that belongs to so-and-so.” The Ruach “opens its mouth and says” before Him, “Master of the Universe! The world in which I have dwelled from the time that You Created me suits my purposes. Why is it Your Will to Insert me into this putrid material, since I am holy and pure and I am formed from Your Glory?” Immediately the Holy One, Blessed be He Says to the soul, “The world into which I am Inserting you will be better for you than the one in which you have been dwelling. In fact, at the time that I Created you, I Created you specifically to be inserted into this specific material.” Immediately the Holy One, Blessed be He, Inserts it there against its will

In light of the assumption that leaving one’s comfortable surroundings is not only natural but beneficial and exactly what God Intends for all people in all circumstances, then in fact, an exit from an essentially static Olam HaNeshamot (World of Souls) in order to prepare to enter into Olam HaZeh (“This World”) is a step up, at least potentially. The spirit will have to be resourceful, flexible and persistent in attempting to sanctify not only the body in which it finds itself, but also its greater surroundings, the ubiquitous task of being Mekadech Chol (sanctifying that which is not holy.)[10] 

            The assumption that the fulfilled life is made up of a series of crossroads where choices are made to either remain within one’s comfort zone or venture beyond to situations entailing risk and therefore potential success or failure, offers a rich perspective upon not only the Biblical stories with which we are familiar, but our own life journeys. It all raises the evocative question of the dialectic created by inheriting a religious tradition that values continuity and validation of the past, even as we are called upon to muscularly face the present and future in pro-active rather than passive modes.


[1] Nekudat Peticha, Tzomet, Alon Shevut, Israel, 5766, pp. 35-6.

[2] See my essay, “Raising ‘Difficult’ Children”, particularly the portion that deals with R. Elimelech Bar Shaul’s understanding of Eisav’s personality at 

[3] See RaShI on Beraishit 35:29.

[4] In an attempt to understand Yaakov’s strange behavior upon first encountering Rachel, i.e., (Beraishit 29:10-11) his single-handedly removing the rock that obstructed drawing water from the communal well and then kissing Rachel, Rabbeinu Bachya and R. S.R. Hirsch both suggest that the powerful emotion that precipitated these actions was the memory of his mother, Rivka, whom he badly missed. R. Hirsch even proposes that Rachel markedly resembled Rivka, a logical assumption since they were closely related to one another—Lavan’s sister and daughter respectively—thereby supplying the trigger for his bizarre actions. See Nechama Leibowitz’ Gilayon for Parashat VaYetze 5728 at

[5] If Adam is punished by virtue of his having to work for his food, then obviously he will be expelled from the Garden where food was so easily obtained. However, it is interesting to note that the expulsion is not connected by God to the change in man’s relationship with the earth and the manner in which he will have to obtain food going forward, but rather in terms of his not getting the opportunity to eat from the Tree of Life (Beraishit 3:22-4.) While the imposition of toil with regard to food collection and production would appear to be punitive, it is possible that man’s mortality and being placed outside of Eden is necessary for his personal growth and development.

[6] Otherwise, it is unclear why the rest of the world was necessary for the Creation, if man was meant to spend eternity in the relatively small area delineated as the Garden of Eden!

[7] On this point, I have chosen to differ with R. Bazak. In his essay on Parashat Noach, (Nekudat Peticha, pp. 17-18), the author stresses the extreme difference between the expulsions from Eden and the construction of the Tower, seeing the former negatively and the latter favorably. I am suggesting that even losing Eden was in the long-run advantageous to man, and that it perhaps can be regained at some later point. See e.g., Me’or VaShemesh, Devarimk Parashat VaEtachanan, d.h. HaInyan Kach: “…that afterwards at the Giving of the Tora when everyone was assembled at Har Sinai, they (the Jewish people) reached the level of the First Adam before the sin…”

[8] The laws of honoring and respecting one’s parents continues throughout one’s life; however the psychic reality that they will be the only significant others for a person is rejected, and the expectation that the individual will mature from being someone’s child and become someone’s mate, and someone else’s parent.

[9] William Wordsworth captures a parallel sense of the Talmud’s depiction of  first the learning by the individual followed by his “forgetting” what he has learned  in this passage from his poem, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:


The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,


        Hath had elsewhere its setting,


          And cometh from afar:


        Not in entire forgetfulness,


        And not in utter nakedness,


But trailing clouds of glory do we come


        From God, who is our home:


Heaven lies about us in our infancy!


Shades of the prison-house begin to close


        Upon the growing Boy,


But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,


        He sees it in his joy;


The Youth, who daily farther from the east


    Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,


      And by the vision splendid


      Is on his way attended;


At length the Man perceives it die away,


And fade into the light of common day.  


[10] This is the ostensible sense of the passage towards the end of tractate Berachot (64a):

R. Avin HaLevi said: One who takes leave of someone who has died, should not say “Lech LeShalom” (go towards peace/wholeness), but rather “Lech BeShalom” (go in peace, i.e., whatever wholeness you have achieved until this point must be sufficient, since in the afterlife there are no longer opportunities for growth and development as there were in “This World.”) as it is said, (Beraishit 15:15), “And you will come to your fathers ‘BeShalom’ (in peace; a reference to what will occur following Avraham’s death.)





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