November 26, 1998
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder
Parashat Va-Yeze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
When I was 16, my family picked up and moved from Santa Monica, where I had been born and raised, to Sacramento. The move came on the heels of the best and most exciting year of my life. My first year of high school had been an amazing whirl of new and old friends, educational successes and the thrill of being a drummer in the Santa Monica High School marching band. We played pep rallies and football games, and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the dedication of the new Music Center. This exciting, whirlwind year ended with the privilege of appearing live at the Hollywood Bowl as featured drummer with the "Samohi Serenaders," the school's award-winning stage band.
The very next morning, I was stuffed into the car and left everything and everyone I had known (outside my immediate family). It was the most painful and difficult thing I had ever done in my life. I will never forget the feeling of dread as I rode for hour after hour, contemplating my unknown future -- a strange school with no friends in a strange city devoid of anything familiar or recognizable. It was not a pretty picture, and I was miserable.
I had also just celebrated my Confirmation that month, and I felt as though I were leaving behind every familiar Jewish landmark and relationship as well. It ended up being that Confirmation class experience gave me a strategy for coping with the turmoil of this traumatic life change. I was only dimly aware of how powerful this tool would be at the time, even as I almost unconsciously began using it to help transform my rapidly changing life.
You see, the most important thing I did on that fateful ride from Santa Monica to Sacramento was dream. Even as I wallowed in self-pity over the cruelty of fate and the capriciousness of parental decisions, I began to use my own dreams to fashion a vision of the future that I wanted to create. But it wasn't merely my dreams that turned my life around; it was the dreams and dramas of the Torah as well.
Confirmation was the first time I had ever taken Judaism very seriously. I remember realizing that it might be the last time I would ever be exposed to a "formal" Jewish education, and, feeling so pathetically illiterate as a Jew, I sat down and began to read and think about the Torah in a way differently than I had ever read it before.
All of a sudden, those stories seemed to be about my ancestors. It began to feel as if I was actually reading about my own ancient relatives, as if somehow my own life was intimately connected to their lives in an as-yet-undiscovered way. And as I read on and identified with them, my own life lost some of its fear. I began to think: "If they could do it, so can I. If they could survive dislocation, sibling rivalry, frustration, disappointment, death of loved ones and family turmoil, so can I."
So, on that ride from Santa Monica to Sacramento, I thought about Jacob and how he must have felt as he ran for his life, leaving behind the security of his family and friends and striking out into the unknown. I actually remember thinking about Jacob's dream of the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with the angels going up and down. If Jacob, in spite of his fear and inner turmoil, could conjure up the comfort of angels and a comforting voice that assured him everything would turn out OK, then I was determined to do the same thing. And I did.
I thought of Jacob's dream, and I concentrated on my own. The angels went up and down, not down and up. So it's up to us to recognize the angels who are here on Earth, those messengers who can bring us comfort and support and inspiration and love first, and then, perhaps, they will find their echo in the heavens as well. I know it worked for me.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.