Break Free from Inertia (Eruvin 78)

Our patriarch Yaakov escapes the wrath of his brother, Esau, and heads off to Charan.  On the way, he puts his head down to rest for the night.  He has a dream.  In the dream, there is a ladder that ascends to heaven.  And angels run up the ladder and down the ladder.

Suddenly he awakens and declares, “How awesome this place is.  This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven!”

אָמַר רַבָּה אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא: דְּקָלִים שֶׁבְּבָבֶל — אֵינָן צְרִיכִין קֶבַע. מַאי טַעְמָא: כְּבֵידָן קוֹבַעְתָּן. וְרַב יוֹסֵף אָמַר רַבִּי אוֹשַׁעְיָא: סוּלָּמוֹת שֶׁבְּבָבֶל — אֵינָן צְרִיכִין קֶבַע. מַאי טַעְמָא: כְּבֵידָן קוֹבַעְתָּן. מַאן דְּאָמַר סוּלָּמוֹת, כל שֶׁכֵּן דְּקָלִים. וּמַאן דְּאָמַר דְּקָלִים, אֲבָל סוּלָּמוֹת לָא.

Rabba quoted Rabbi Chiya: The trunks of palm trees in Babylonia that were placed next to a wall between two courtyards so that people could climb on them and pass from one courtyard to another (and have a single domain for Shabbat purposes) do not need to be established permanently and attached to the ground. What is the reason for this? Their heaviness considers them fixed in place. Similarly, Rav Yosef quoted Rabbi Oshaya: Ladders in Babylonia do not need to be established and fixed permanently in place. What is the reason? Their heaviness fixes them in place.  With regard to the one who said that ladders do not need to be fixed in place, all the more so would he agree regarding the trunks of palm trees. But the one who said that the palm trees are heavy, with regards to ladders, he would not agree.

We all experience times in life when we feel heavy and fixed in place.  You feel weighed down and lacking strength to get anything done.  You hit a state of inertia, and you’re unable to move forward.

Sometimes, it may be on account of a challenging chapter of life you’ve been through.  Other times, the inertia lacks explanation and is similar to writer’s block.  It’s just there and you’re feeling unmotivated to get anything accomplished. How do you break free from such a powerless state?

You need to take the attitude of Rabbi Chiya, who maintains that ladders are always moveable.  Ladders represent growth.  It might seem like a ladder is so heavy that it is immovable.  But ladders, by their very definition, symbolize growth.

We think that getting things done entails moving around and being busy.  But if you’re only moving about horizontally, you’re simply treading water.  True movement means climbing the ladder and striving higher in life.  When you feel that you’re stuck in one place and don’t have the strength to move, it’s the Almighty nudging you to make a leap of faith upwards.  Not to be cemented to the earth and swaying back and forth in one place.

When you’re feeling the heaviness of inertia, the way to break free is to take a leap.  To jump up and do something bold and strong.  If you allow the inertia to take hold, it will control you.  The only way to emancipate yourself is to climb out of your current situation and enter a higher realm.

How do you do that?  It may entail getting up an hour earlier than you normally do, just to shake the system up a little.  Once you’re up and awake, you’ve broken the monotony and inertia.  It might mean finding a new location and different scene to do your work, such as a coffee shop or library, temporarily shaking up the monotonous feeling of your home or office surroundings.

But sometimes, you start climbing the ladder and then wonder why you’re still not accomplishing as much as you expected you would.  Why isn’t the growth explosive once you’re striving ever higher?  The answer is that you can’t expect to constantly be climbing the ladder in life.  Rabbi Avraham Zalmans points out that, just like in Yaakov’s dreams, even angels ascend the ladder, but also experience descent (Itu”T 251).

Some people face inertia because they’re afraid of taking risks.  They’re scared of heights.  If they can climb the ladder, then they could fall off the ladder.  But don’t think of it as falling off the ladder.  Think of it as descending the ladder.  It would be great if we could always be ascending, but even Yaakov’s angels descended.  The key is that unless you ascend, it’s impossible to descend.

Inertia sets in when you’re afraid to start climbing the ladder. You tell yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can handle that situation.  It’s beyond my ability.’  And so you’re weighed down by this inertia, as if you’re attached to the ground.  It’s time to break free.  Those fears are all in your mind.  You need to leap up and jump onto that next rung of the ladder.  You’re not attached to the ground.

To avoid the fear of climbing, there are two things that you need to know about a ladder.  They’re generally not placed vertically.  Most of the time, a ladder is placed at a diagonal degree.  What’s more, it is leaning on something.

When you imagine that the ladder is straight up, it’s daunting to try to ascend.  But when you realize that it’s slanted, it’s not as difficult to take that leap onto the ladder.  And always remember that while the ladder might not be attached to the ground, it is leaning on something.  It’s firm.  It will hold you.  In the case of Yaakov’s ladder, it was leaning on God’s throne.  When you know that your spiritual ascent rests on God’s throne, it gives you the strength to move onwards and upwards.

Don’t let the fear of falling down paralyze you.  To paraphrase Lord Tennyson, ‘Tis better to have ascended and descended than never to have ascended at all.  May you break free from your inertia and take the leap onto each rung of the ladder, bringing you material and spiritual prosperity!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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