Va-Yetse opens with Jacob’s flight from Esau. Finding himself in “nowhere land,” Jacob falls asleep and dreams of angels ascending and descending on a סולם / sulam. (Genesis 28:12) Unlike most others, the NJPS translates “stairway.”
The episode and its particulars have spawned several insightful explanations, cultural and psychological among them. The NJPS translation of “stairway” and the spiritual elements in the narrative, take me back to my teenage years and to one of the most popular rock songs — Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (1971) One site claims that it is the most requested song in the United States on FM stations.
There are many “RaSHI”’s on the song’s meaning, but simply stated, the sweet, soulful, and spiritual melody combines with vague lyrics; young men and women could interpret it, or not interpret it, and let themselves be carried by the nearly eight-minutes, as they wish. I confess that I don’t know what the composers meant, and that may be its weakness and its strength.
Two of the early verses illustrate my point: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” “There’s a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, ’cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” These are followed by phrases such as “ooh, makes me wonder” and “forests echo with laughter.” There is, however, no evidence that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant borrowed from Jacob’s stairway to heaven.
A Jewish “stairway to heaven” comes from R Sh’mu’el b Nachman (3rd century; Israel). He regarded the sulam as history. The angels, ascending and descending, represent the nations of the world, at first dominating the Jewish people, only to eventually descend. Each rung represented a year. He steps further, by referencing the prophets — Jeremiah 30:10 — that even in captivity we should not fear, for God is with us. He then concludes with Ovadiah 1:4, that no matter how high our enemies ascend, God would bring them low.
As Nehama Leibovitz noted, “The ladder is not an endless one, but the Lord stands at its top, 28:13) as the master of history, assuring us that pride and despotism will be brought low …”
We have suffered at the hand of our many enemies. They had their moments of glory while treating the Jewish people harshly. Several are noted in the full Ma’oz Tzur that we will soon chant on Chanukah.
The 20th century British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume A Study of History, (1934–1961) on the rise and decline of twenty-three civilizations, depicted the Jews as a “fossil” civilization. Our political and military enemies attempt to destroy us physically; our intellectual enemies discredit us ideologically. Still others dismiss us; we do not fit their scheme.
In 1946, testifying before the Anglo-American Committee which was charged with recommending where to send the more than 100,000 European Jewish DPs, Chaim Weizmann reaffirmed the view that antisemitism would continue as long as the Jewish people remained stateless. Zionists, over Arab and British opposition, advocated that these Jewish refugees be sent to what would be Israel. (The Committee could not find a better alternative and sided with the Zionists.)
That Zionist view turned out to be in error, or at least overstated. Antisemitism did not appreciably diminish; it merely took on a new form — anti-Zionism. The State of Israel is not only a source of pride, but where Jews can better control their own history.
Religious Zionists, however, reflecting R Sh’mu’el, know that a Jewish State is not enough. We are strengthened by R Sh’mu’el b Nachman’s historical-religious view that as long as God is at the apex of our historical ladder, and as long as we act as God’s junior partner on earth, together we will prevail.
When we hear the Led Zeppelin song, perhaps we will be reminded that “sometimes words have two meanings.” Sometimes even more. That is the foundational premise of Midrash. So it is with R Sh’mu’el b Nachman’s “stairway to heaven.”