Up and Down the Ladder to Heaven

Sermon delivered November 12, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Studies are pretty clear. Jewish communities lose adherents in large numbers after they leave the family home, going off to college or to find their own way in the world as young adults. We’re not alone; established Protestant denominations lose even greater percentages of their members. The Jewish people, though, constitute an infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population. We cannot afford to diminish our numbers.

This week’s Torah portion may serve as a guide, as we explore the phenomenon of young adults who leave the faith and traditions of our people. The portion is called, vayyetze, which means, “He left.” “He” in this case is Jacob; and the weekly reading opens when he leaves his parents’ home. As Annie will read tomorrow morning, Jacob is all alone. His mother has sent him to her native city, where she hopes he’ll be safe and that he’ll find a wife from among her relatives. Along the way, just hours from home, night falls. Jacob is tired. He is lonely. He does not know what the future will bring. He has nothing to use as a pillow, so he resorts to using stones. He lies down, and Jacob dreams a dream.

Jacob is not unlike young people nurtured by families of this congregation. They are secure in the love of their families, and they find their place in Judaism at Temple Beth-El. But then, like Jacob, they leave. Parents and Rabbis may not imagine that we’re sending these young adults off to find a spouse as Rebekah hoped for Jacob, but we are pleased when they can stand on their own two feet. Independence is a goal. Off they go, seeking an education, in pursuit of a new life for themselves. We send them off with material more comfortable than stones for a pillow, but discomfort is inescapable nonetheless. As our youth increasingly become adults, they forge their own way, often very different from what their parents had expected or hoped.

We elders may think of ourselves as young in our mid-40s or whatever. But our young people know better. We have adapted to the information age, but I’ve learned a new word lately. Those in the younger generation are “digital natives.” They may stumble on Facebook, but not because it is foreign to them. Regular email reaches them little better than a printed newspaper, like Morse code to you and me.

But make no mistake: Our young adults are searching. They find friends, real and virtual, through social media, and they may even seek religious connections there. Too often, they struggle. Yes, they are searching for relationships and for a place in the current, difficult economic order. Relationships, like jobs, may be fleeting. So our young people seek meaning.

The western world has trodden this path once before. More than a few “Baby Boomers” set up their rocks and laid down for the night at Woodstock. Others went to Viet Nam, and too many of them returned scarred. That generation radically questioned authority, but ultimately came home to establish new versions of the hierarchies and patterns laid down by their parents.

Today’s young people include brave men and women who have volunteered for our nation’s service. But the All Volunteer Force means that no young person of means need fear a military future that she or he would not choose. Otherwise, though, their choices feel limited. The economy is not what it was, and many wonder whether this younger generation will face ever-narrowing prospects. The search for meaning becomes more urgent when purpose will less clearly be found through employment.

So our young people lay down for the night, on hard ground, with stone pillows under their heads. Hopefully, they dream. Jacob sees angels going up the ladder, and then coming back down. Those angels do not proceed in the order we might naturally expect. If angels dwell in heaven, they would begin their journey at the top of the ladder, coming down before they go up. But the angels in Jacob’s dream start here on Earth.

The message is as clear as it is counter-intuitive. Angels are here on Earth. Each and every one of us is an angel – in Hebrew, a malach – God’s messenger.

Each generation would do well to learn of the messages brought down the ladder by those who went before us. We who lead Temple Beth-El in these early years of the 21st Century stand on the shoulders of those who built before us. They came to this Sanctuary, where their ladder was planted firmly. The sought God, they ascended the ladder, with prayers set to the soaring melodies of Classical Reform Judaism accompanied by the organ. But they did not remain in heaven. Instead, our predecessors came down the ladder. Annie’s grandparents and great-grandparents and their peers worked hard to build San Antonio and to construct a firmly established Jewish community. Their Rabbis inspired them to end segregation, to seek the welfare of the common laborer, and to make the world more fair.

Admittedly, many who climbed ladders like Jacob’s in second half of the 20th Century doubted the very existence of God. They sought to ascend nonetheless, faithful to the tradition they had received. Perhaps doubts about the heavens strengthened them in their resolve to do good work here on Earth. The grandparents of today’s 20-somethings would do God’s work even if they weren’t sure of God’s partnership. They supported Israel. They created social service organizations to address our city’s ills.

The 20th Century was a period of deep faith in the future. Science would conquer all. President Kennedy said that America would put a man on the moon in the 1960s, and we did. Many of us grew up with an unshakable faith that cancer would be cured, that any of us could become President one day, and that America would succeed in every endeavor because our nation would always be right.

Now, many of us think we know better. Cancer treatment has improved, but the quest for that all-encompassing cure sounds like folly. We’re told that to go to the moon, where our nation has been before, would require a commitment of decades in today’s world. We fear that our nation’s best days are behind us.

In the 21st Century, we ascend the ladder with greater urgency. Some seek to escape the troubles of today’s world. Extremists of every faith, including our own, reject the modern world. They seek to stay atop the ladder, in what they regard as constant communion with God. When they come back to Earth, their mission is to destroy freedom and progress, to turn back the clocks and to restore a medieval rule of religion over reason.

Our own young people are different. Yes, they have cause for concern. Like Jacob, they know not what the future holds for them. Dangers lurk on their path. Their parents’ love stands behind them; but at times, they are very much alone as they face an uncertain future.

Each generation would do well to pay attention as young people come after us to ascend Jacob’s ladder. The young Jews of today, they tell us, will not automatically join synagogues like their parents. Many of them do not feel connected to Israel. And yet, young people are making meaningful connections to Jewish life. They are ascending to find spiritual inspiration, and they are coming back to Earth to make a difference.

Young Jews in significant population centers are creating their own spiritual communities. They are egalitarian. They do not make distinctions on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or identity, Reform, Conservative or otherwise. They do not pay dues, but they find a way to sustain their communities. They bring themselves together through social media. They struggle with Israel, with the existing branches of Judaism, with the “Jewish establishment,” and with the lamented “high cost of being Jewish.” But they do come together for Shabbat. They do gather on our Holy Days. Their prayers may not look or sound like ours, but they are based on the same structure that our people has been following for more than ten centuries. They are seeking God in community, however differently they may perceive God and however variously they are defining community. They have put down their stones for the night, and the ladder has taken them into the presence of the Divine.

Best of all, these young Jews take inspiration from their alternative approaches to spiritual life, and they reemerge into the world eager to make it better. Their concerns are more like ours than they are different, but we should pay attention to the nuance. They will embrace Jewish life only where it is open and accepting and inclusive and true to Jewish ideals, in their own communities and in Israel. They will live a Judaism that speaks to the open society that they call home, as they provide a Jewish voice to a nation of individuals from a variety of cultures and origins and families of every kind. When they speak of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, they literally mean “the world,” for they are rightly frightened of the environmental future. As our next generation comes down the ladder, they are eager to live in harmony with land and sea; community sustained agriculture will be increasingly a by-word and humane harvest a mitzvah. Having found inspiration atop their own ladder, they have come down to Earth with a mission.

This week, I read the words of my classmate, now a professor at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, who taught me magnificent words of Midrash about the stones that make up Jacob’s pillow. At the beginning of the story, we’re told that he takes stones – more than one, the word is plural – to make his pillow. At the end of his dream, though, when he wakes up, he is sleeping on one stone, which he sets up as a marker for all time. Theories abound about how Jacob can fall asleep on one stone but awaken on but one. A Midrash imagines that Jacob takes three stones: one each, representing his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and himself. Jacob says that if the three stones supernaturally become one, he will know that he is meant to carry on the covenant of his ancestors. Therefore, the story goes, he falls asleep on a pillow of three rocks, but wakes up on one larger, unified stone.

Each generation must ascend the ladder to find its own way to God. As lovely as that rare air may be, though, we are commanded to take what we learn in our spiritual moments on high and then come back to Earth, to heal this world. My prayer is that the new generation will place its ladder firmly in bedrock, metaphorically made up of three stones: one representing the past, the second for the present, and the third for their own future days. Let our young people find their own way to God, and let them come down, finding that the three rocks have become one solid stone, a foundation on which they may build a secure Jewish tomorrow here on Earth.