Strengthening Understanding and Tolerance: An Act of Holiness
After stealing his brother's birthright, Jacob set’s out on a journey to Haran to find his uncle Laban and marry one of his daughters. After traveling for some time he stopped to rest. While sleeping, Jacob dreamt that a ladder was placed in the ground, reaching all the way up into the sky. He watched as angels went up and down the ladder between the two dimensions, the Heavens and the Earth. Adonai spoke to Jacob in this dream, reminding him of his birthright and promising him protection. From that point on God accompanied Jacob everywhere, making sure of his safe return to the land.
There are many different interpretations for what Jacobs' dream might mean.
For instance in Midrash (B'reshit Rabbah 68:12), Rashi claims that the angels ascending and descending the ladder did so because only certain angels were permitted to leave the land, and those who were not permitted, needed to go back up to heaven and let the others accompany Jacob on his journey.
I have to be honest with you, Rashi’s very literal interpretation of the angles is one that I struggle to connect to. However, I read an interpretation by an Israeli Rabbi, Aryeh Ben David that resonated with me.
Rabbi Aryeh teaches “The ladder is a means of connection that allows for movement. In Jacob’s dream, the ladder unites two seemingly disparate worlds⎯ heaven and earth. The angels symbolize the energy and interaction between these separate domains. Overall,” Rabbi Aryeh says, “God’s revelation to Jacob affirms that God will always assist Jacob in his mission to unify the heavenly and earthly spheres, to sanctify the physical domain of human activity and to make this world a more ‘Godly’ realm.”
While Jacob is granted a far closer relationship to God than we are, there is an important lesson we can all learn from Jacob’s mission. The concept that it is our mission, as members of this covenant to bring the holy and the earthly closer together, reminding me of the reason that I began to wear my kippah four years ago.
I remember the moment I clipped it to my head for the first time. It was 2015 and I was in Orlando, Florida at my first URJ Biennial conference. I had just begun my marketing position at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and I was on track to soak up as much information as I could to take back to my new job. I saw so many women wearing kippot at the conference… more than I had ever seen in my life, and all in the same place. I felt inspired, so I bought one from a vendor.
I stepped out of the large room filled with booths selling ritual garb and Jewish technology, and found a bench. I sat and held the kippah in my hands, staring at it for a while. I admired the brightness of its white thread and the carefully crochet pattern while I contemplated what I would say when someone asked me why I decided to wear it. While it felt empowering as a woman, and that would have been enough, I wanted to find a more spiritual connection to the practice.
Mind you… this was before I discovered I wanted to become a rabbi, but one of those moments looking back that it should have been more clear.
Still sitting on the bench I pulled out my iPhone and began to research. I probably sat there for at least an hour reading all sorts of different interpretations. My favorite, the one that I still contemplate today, is that the kippah sits on our head as a physical reminder of our connection to a higher power. After all my research, I placed the kippah on my head and walked proudly onto my next activity. I didn’t take it off except to sleep and shower for two more years.
What I found was that most people either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Those who were curious were typically respectful. This is where I discovered my opportunity to bring a bit more holiness into the world. As you know, it is not typical to see a young woman out and about in the grocery store, a restaurant, or your local park, sporting a yarmulke, as most Americans know it. So I often got the questions, “Can you wear that?” - and - “I thought only men could wear those?”
In my head, I’d like to respond “Yes, in fact - I, a woman can place this small circular piece of fabric on my head.” But of course my annoyance at their lack of understanding would not serve either of us. So assuming I had five minutes, I would stop to explain the very basics of Reform Judaism and teach the stranger that there are many different approaches to Judaism. Wearing my kippah in public has awarded me countless opportunities to teach the average American that not all Jews look alike, and not all Jews practice alike.
I believe that teaching each other about our customs is one way to build a more tolerant world - and that any act which strengthens understanding and tolerance is an act of holiness. May we each continue Jacob’s mission to unify the heavenly and earthly spheres, as we search for our own ways to bring more holiness to this earth.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David. Around the Shabbat Table. Vayeitzei.