We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder – Shabbat Vayetzei, World AIDS Day, 2014
By Rabbi Lisa Edwards
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, begins with a skeptical young Jacob, sent away from his family, alone in the world, falling asleep in the “middle of nowhere” with a rock for a pillow, and dreaming his famous dream of a stairway – a ladder – reaching up “to to the sky and angels of God going up and down on it.” [Genesis 28:12]
Commentators often note that it seems strange that the angels were said to be going up and down instead of down and up — as we might expect angels to be starting out in heaven and heading down to earth. The midrash [Gen. R. 68:12] suggests it’s a kind of “change of shift” — the angels who had been with Jacob in his parents’ home are different from the ones who will accompany him outside the LAND.
This is easy for me to picture, for in the block Tracy and I live on, we see this everyday. There is a skilled nursing rehabilitation hospital on our corner just a few doors down from us, and several times a day we witness a shift change as “flocks” of nurses in white uniforms come and go from the Rehab Home to their cars parked on the street near our house. In their white uniforms they look like angels — and given the work they do — I’m sure many of them are angels on earth.
So the shift change explanation makes sense, but the explanation I am really drawn to about why they are going up and down (instead of down and up) is the one that suggests that many angels start out on earth. The Hebrew word for angel “malach” also means “messenger,” so they may not be some kind of heavenly looking creature (wings and halos or even dressed in white), but rather, as is often the case in Jewish imagination —
God’s messengers in ordinary human form.
This coming Monday, December 1, is known as World AIDS Day (1988), and also “Day With(out) Art” (1989). However we observe World AIDS Day — as a day without art, or more commonly now, as a day with art (and memorials and commemorations) intended to remind us — World AIDS Day is a day to remember — to remember the history of AIDS and to remember that this plague is not yet over. To remember that AIDS continues to spread, that AIDS continues to be used as a weapon of hate and oppression. And it is a day (a time) to remember our friends — gentle and fierce — who fought the good fight and lost, or who are fighting still — those living with HIV/AIDS and those standing beside them, helping, caring, working to end AIDS. Many we know are living their lives with burdens, yes, but also living lives of purpose and wonder and appreciation. Some are amazed to be alive and some take it in stride. Ordinary or extraordinary — all of them bring blessings to those of us who know them. Dead ones and living ones, infected with or just affected by HIV/AIDS, they are among the angels on Jacob’s ladder — starting on the ground.
Someone asked me the other day if I really think we should continue our kaddish tradition at BCC — continue to list groups of people “who have us to remember them.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Jews throughout history, we say, who have us to remember them. People of all ages who have died from AIDS. We aren’t remembering individual people, my questioner said to me, and even a lot of the names we read from the lists — there is no one around who remembers those people.
In another recent conversation the question was whether if something goes into an archive, but is not looked at, if that’s a valuable use of space. Does it have import if it is collected, but not viewed? My answer to both is yes and yes. Though I understand the worry or frustration or anxiety…whatever it is…the probability of being remembered or maybe more to the point of being forgotten.
The conversations reminded me of a piece of writing I love that, come to think of it, I’m quite sure doesn’t get remembered enough — I thought you might especially appreciate it on this day after Thanksgiving, while giving thanks is on our minds, and in this week of reading about angels going up and down on ladders — on stairways to heaven, and in these days leading up to World AIDS Day when we are taking the time to remember.
It is by our friend Andrew Ramer, and its called “From a Shelf on the 613th floor” in his very marvelous book called Queering the Text, in the section called “The Genizah of Dreams.” By the way, it’s helpful to know that the main character, Huldah, [khuldah] is a woman prophet who appears briefly in the Hebrew Bible only in nine verses, 2 Kings 22:13-20, 2 Chronicles 34:22-28. Have you ever heard of her?
The Rabbis of mishnah and talmud and midrash seem to appreciate her — Huldah is one of the seven women prophets of Israel enumerated by the Rabbis: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther (BT Megillah 14a); she is also mentioned in midrash among the twenty-three truly upright and righteous women who came forth from Israel (Midrash Tadshe, Ozar haMidrashim [Eisenstein], p. 474).
Many believe the Huldah Gates in the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount are named for her, and that she was descended from Joshua. But in truth, and sadly, she is little remembered…so far:
Here’s Andrew Ramer’s story of her. [p.61]
From a Shelf on the 613th Floor
It is Wisdom calling,
Understanding raising her voice.
She takes her stand at the topmost heights.
Huldah spent all of her time tutoring students up
in fourth heaven. Her area of expertise was training
advanced teachers who were getting ready to
incarnate again. After more than thirty centuries
in heaven she rarely thought about her own last life
on Earth, but every hundred years or so something
would come over her, nostalgia, sorrow, regret, de-
light. Then she’d ﬁnd herself heading up to the
archives in the center of sixth heaven, climbing the
great spiral staircase, its stairs of crystal glowing
from within. Oh, the size of it! Thousands of levels,
each one as large as an ocean. And the rows, the
racks, the shelves, the stacks, room after room after
room of them. Huldah mounted the stairs till she came to her
ﬂoor. She pushed through the high silver doors and
headed toward her section. A gilt sign hung from
the luminous amber ceiling, which read, “Prophecy,
Song, Poetry: Hebrew.” She turned left and then
right, stopping at a smaller sign that read, “Prophets,
singers, poets: female.”
There were hundreds of volumes there. None of
them had been preserved down on Earth. Many of
them had been written by students in the school
that Sheerah and Shulamit had founded, and oth-
ers came from the many forgotten women who were
prophets in Israel. She reached out a trembling hand
for the nearest volume, which turned out to be Th e
Love Songs of Zeruiah, the Daughter of King David.
Zeruiah was David’s youngest child, his daughter
with Bathsheba, named for his own sister. Like her
father, Zeruiah was a poet, a singer of songs. All of
her songs were written to women. Huldah had for-
gotten how beautiful they were, so beautiful that she
couldn’t put down the scroll. Instead, she took it to
a study carrel at the end of the aisle and spent the
rest of the afternoon poring through it, from begin-
ning to end. She was so moved that she forgot all
about her own lost books. No, it was only at twi-
light, when Zeruiah’s book was back on its shelf,
when Huldah was heading down the aisle, when the
ﬁrmament above her was ﬂooded with angels chanting
the evening prayers, that she remembered, with
a ﬂash of anger that there was no Book of Huldah
in the scriptures, as there were books named for her
Jeremiah and the other prophets who were men.
Like lightning, her anger ﬂared, then passed.
Wistfully, Huldah continued down the great stairs,
heading back to her residence. “Funny,” she thought,
“that I can still be knocked oﬀ center by how history
has unfolded.” Then she stopped in her tracks and
started to laugh, out loud. A passing angel paused
for a moment, puzzled. Looking up at it, Huldah
laughed again, remembering that every word ever
spoken, every book ever written down on Earth, sits
on a shelf of aquamarine, in the archives of heaven.
“Nothing is ever lost,” she said to herself, smiling.
“Everything is waiting to be found again, in its own