Rosh Hashanah 2009/5770: A Ladder to Heaven
By Rabbi Shohama Wiener
We just read the Torah reading that our sages picked for the first morning of RH — the story of Abraham and Sarah miraculously giving birth to Isaac. Indeed it is a fitting story, but it is not the only story our sages might have chosen for this day.
Last month, we visited some friends who live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a charming town bordering the Atlantic Ocean. To our surprise, on one of the beaches, was a ladder stuck in the sand. Clearly a work of art. Just a ladder. Going nowhere, or maybe going somewhere that we could not see.
It reminded me of a narrative in the Torah that, for me, provides a cornerstone of Jewish thought. Were I to have been sitting in on the discussion with our sages about what Torah story to choose for Rosh Hashanah morning, I might have voted for the story of Jacob’s ladder.
You may remember that Jacob deceived his father and received the blessing of inheritance that was supposed to go to Jacob’s older brother, Esau. Now he had to flee Esau’s rage and desire to kill him. His mother told Jacob to go to his uncle’s place in Haran, and mid-flight, he stopped to sleep. And he dreamed, and saw a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Then God appeared besides him and blessed him. And this was the essence of the blessing:
In you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And know that I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back into this land.
When Jacob awoke he said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and I, I knew it not. Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, God is in this place.
You may hear that the Hebrew word for “place,” makom, is used many times in this story. HaMakom, “the place,” is one of the many names that tradition uses for God. So God was with Jacob all along: he just didn’t know it.
The visual, the ladder, adds another dimension. It portrays God’s emissaries, the angels, going up and then down. Why up and then down? Say some of the commentators, because God is always with us, angels are always with us. They carry our prayers up to God and then carry God’s blessings down to us.
I used to think that angels were mere folklore, a literary device found in tall-tales. My shift began in the mid 1980’s, when I joined the Manhattan congregation of the great musical rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory. In addition to the music being gloriously uplifting, his theology challenged and inspired me. My favorite song was B’Shaim HaShem (in the name of God), also known as The Angel Song, which contains a text asking for blessing, in the name of God, from the four Archangels (Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Rafael) as well as the Shechinah, an image of God’s feminine presence residing in all of created life. This text about angels appears in traditional prayer books as part of the bedtime Shema prayer. I made it a practice to chant the song or say the words morning and night, as well as at other times when I needed protection. We sang it here earlier this morning.
I wasn’t sure initially whether the angels were “real” or just a name for energetic qualities of love, strength, vision and healing. After studying the tradition and realizing that they appear in many places in the Hebrew Bible, as well as in the Talmud and mystical Jewish literature, I was able to suspend my doubts.
One day in 1994, I was lying on my bed, in a meditative frame of mind, when a huge, loving wave of energy swept through my body. In my mind’s eye I saw a large, loving man with huge wings, and felt intuitively that he was an angel. A name came to me, which I hold close to my heart. As I called out this name, I felt an amazing sense of joy. That is how this angel made his appearance known. Since that time, I connect regularly with his presence, which feels like a loving and wise guide.
Our sister religions, Christianity and Islam, also teach about the significance of angels as agents of God. A friend of mine, Ibrahim Farajaje, a professor, Sheikh and spiritual director in the Sufi tradition, shared with me his life-changing encounter with an angel. This is his story. A couple of years ago he was in the hospital, at death’s door due to a serious lung infection, feeling as if he were drowning. Finally he dozed, and saw an enormous Archangel place his hands on the left side of his chest and pull out “something.” The Archangel communicated without words that all would be well, and that this was his initiation so that he could help others through the passageway to the Divine Light.
The following day chest X-rays were taken, revealing only healthy tissue. The pathology in the left side of his lung had vanished. Professor Farajaje experienced this as a miracle sent by God through the Divine messenger, the Archangel.
Not all encounters with angels bring about miracles, but they always serve a function or bring a message. For example, in the spring of 2008, while in meditation, I wrote down the following, which I felt came from the angelic realm:
Dearly Beloved, I come to you today with a message of hope. Be not fearful for your future. We here stand ready to assist you in the evolution of your planet. But we must be asked…You have been given a great and difficult task, to raise the energies of your bodies and of your planet to a level where peace and love will prevail. It begins with you, each one of you.
Know that the force of light can banish darkness whenever it is directed in sufficient strength. Your strength lies in numbers. It says in your Talmud, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ How much more is it true for every human.
We bless you to grow, grow.
In this new year of 5770, may we be blessed to know that we are not alone — that if we ask, God and God’s angels will bring us that which we most need.