November 10th, 2021
Parashat Vayaytze begins with Jacob’s dream of the ladder to Heaven. As the Angels rise and descend between this world and Heaven, God stands next to Jacob and blesses him. Upon waking up, Jacob exclaims “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”1
While Jacob’s remark is certainly in response to his interaction with Divinity, we certainly can relate to his sentiment. All of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced the phenomenon of radical amazement, coined by the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. This can be experienced in a few central ways – interpersonally, from the birth of a loved one or having an amazing connection with a stranger; sensorily, from eating an incredible meal or seeing something astounding; finally, from recognizing the small, daily miracles, like appreciating waking up to a new day. For some of the greatest moments of awe in our lives, many of us can think of times that we were astounded by something in nature. Whether it was the glorious heavens while looking up at the night’s sky, seeing the ocean for the first time, or watching a nature documentary, you certainly cannot forget those moments. For me, I immediately think of the glorious Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park in Utah – three massive mountains that resemble glorious standing figures, named for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Regardless of the cause of that moment of radical amazement, we can certainly understand Jacob’s reaction! In those moments of awe, we are lifted spiritually up that ladder, overwhelmed by the experience and it can take an extended period of processing to recognize the significance of the moment. This is the same way that Jacob recognizes the implication of the interaction with God only after awakening the next morning, which then causes him to state the above proclamation.
Though traditional Judaism, particularly the Chassidic movement, is legendary for its moments of exaltation, in truth, the disciplined rigor of Jewish observance keeps practitioners in a routine state of awareness, with smaller, occasional moments of awe. Having attended a university minutes away from the beach, I can attest that even the most amazing views can be taken for granted when experienced too often! Jewish prayer, in its wisdom, recognizes this reality of human nature – it is easy for us to take the incredible blessings around us for granted! To Rabbinic Judaism and its thrice-daily prayer routine, spiritual uplift is not a black or white affair – there is a world of gray that keeps observant practitioners within its ebbs and flows, instead of the binary of mundanity and exaltation.
Nevertheless, it is clear that we need to experience an awakening of the collective conscious regarding the majesty of God’s creation! It is clear that we have taken for granted that, in the words of the Psalmist, וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹדוֹ אֶת־כֹּל הָאָרֶץ אָמֵן וְאָמֵן׃ “God’s glory fills the whole world, Amen v’Amen!”2 If we are not awake to the Divine origin of all things, we cannot revere, protect, and sustain the blessing of our world and God’s glorious creations. The foolish notion peddled in our society today that holds faith at odds with science is a tired one – in truth, awareness of the glorious biodiversity of our world, the majesty of our natural resources, and fighting to protect them is a spiritual and moral imperative. Anthropocentric theology, such as the Prosperity Gospel that promotes wealth and consumption as Divine blessing, or the Classical Liberal Economics that promotes the false idol of endless economic growth are blasphemous schools of thought that besmirch the holy name of HaShem Yitbarach.
May we raise our voices high in praise of our world and its creator! May we fight for its long-term sustenance, as it has so dutifully sustained us! May we look to the Torah and its wisdom to find our solutions – as it is written, “Out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may surely eat.”3
Animal agriculture has decimated our natural resources, caused the senseless slaughter of billions of livestock ending the short, cruel life of each individual creature. It accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all methods of transportation worldwide, combined, while being the leading cause of deforestation around the world – the pivotal carbon absorbers our world so desperately needs. Abandoned fishing gear makes up half of all plastic in the world’s water supply – a supply so large that it will outweigh the world’s fish population by mid-century.
What is our solution? To awaken and remind ourselves of, in the words of Jacob, “how awesome is this place!” Like Jacob, we must not only stand alongside God – we must walk with God in the path of righteousness, compassion, and forgiveness.
Wishing you all a Shabbat of awakening, joyous exaltation, and change of action for the better.