The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vayeitzei: Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

Fearing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob flees from his parents' home in Beer-sheba, hoping for sanctuary (and a possible future bride (or two)) from his maternal uncle Laban. Jacob has been fighting his brother since they were in their mother's womb; indeed, although Esau was born first, Jacob was born clinging to his brother's ankle. This archetype of feuding twin brothers exists in many legends in many cultures. Rome was founded by one of two feuding twin brothers. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were twins in the Sumerian epic, as were Ahriman and Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. In this case, Jacob has extorted Esau's birthright and has stolen his blessing from their father through fraud, and his mother warns him that Esau will kill him unless Jacob flees the country, so he flees.

After the end of last week's Torah portion, the reader must be wondering how ethical and how spiritual this scoundrel could possibly be. It doesn't take long before the sun sets and Jacob is forced to find a place to sleep. Fetching a stone for a pillow, he lays down in a familiar place (The King James Version calls it "a certain place" [Genesis 28: 11], but from the Hebrew, it seems the place is familiar to Jacob). Although his life to come, for decades, will be in a foreign land surrounded by people he cannot trust, for his first night away from home, he can sleep in a familiar place, even if in the wilderness.

In his sleep, he has a vision in his dreams. In the Jewish tradition, very few prophets behold God while awake. Most behold God or have visions in their dreams. The rabbis of the Talmud therefore regard Divine visions in dreams as being less definitive than Divine visions had while awake. Nonetheless, Jacob's vision has entered our collective psyche, and has had great influence on Kabbalah, as well as Freemasonry.

In the vision in the dream, a ladder is standing on the ground, and the top of the ladder reaches up to heaven. As he watches, God's angels (malachey Elohim) are ascending and descending the ladder. Suddenly he notices that God (YHVH) is standing over him. God introduces Himself as the God of his father and grandfather, and tells him that He will give Jacob's descendants the land he is lying upon, and they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. They will spread forth in the four cardinal directions, and all the tribes of the earth (kol-mishpechot ha'adamah) will be blessed through Jacob and his descendants. God tells Jacob that he is under His protection through his journeys and until he returns to his homeland.

This image of a ladder to heaven cannot fail to catch hold in the psyche, and many traditions have been fascinated with this metaphor. In the Kabbalah, there is a diagram of the Tree of Life, with ten steps going from the material world (in Malkut, or the Kingdom) to the highest reality distinguished from non-reality (Keter, or the Crown). I have blogged about this diagram many time previously. There is a tradition that suggests that ascent up or descent down the Tree is the same as the angels ascending and descending the ladder, showing us how to do it.

Interesting then that Freemasonry has two differing traditions about Jacob's ladder, one of which has three rungs and one of which has seven rungs (7 + 3 = 10).

In the York Rite Entered Apprentice degree, the candidate is told that Heaven is accessible by Jacob's ladder, and that it has three rungs, called Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Theological Virtues from 1 Corinthians 13. Much of the description of these virtues is taken from Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians. I regard this chapter as having some of the most beautiful language of the New Testament. It is important to note that Charity refers to caritas, rather than the modern conception of charity. The parallel Hebrew concept is chesed (חסד). The parallel Greek concept is agápē (ἀγάπη). It can be translated as lovingkindness. The Kabbalists regard chesed as the highest intellectual consciousness, acting without any cause except love.

In Preston's original lectures, and also in the Emulation ritual, the ladder rests on the Volume of Sacred Law sitting on the altar, rather than on the ground. Thus the Mason has access to the ladder only through the study of scripture, or through attendance in a tyled lodge with the Volume of Sacred Law open.

In the 30th degree (Knight Kadosh) of the Scottish Rite, in Albert Pike's version of the degree, the candidate is shown a ladder with seven rungs, one for each of the three Theological Virtues, and one for each of the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. He gives them Hebrew names:

  1. צדקה, (tsedakah) a word that means charity (in the modern sense), but also truth, justice and righteousness.
  2. שוה לבנה, (shavah lavanah) literally, "merit the white", which Pike translates as "Pure or perfect Equity".
  3. מתוק, (matok) pleasantness or amiability.
  4. אמונה, (emunah) faith, or as Pike translates, "Good Faith".
  5. עמל שגיא, (amal saggi) a lofty effort, or as Pike translates, "Much Labour or Exertion".
  6. סבל, (sabbal) a word meaning a bearer of burdens, or as Pike translates, "Patience or Endurance".
  7. Three words: גמול, and בינה, and תבונה. (gemul, binah, tevunah) The first is deed or action, which Pike translates as "Elaboration". The second is wisdom or insight, which Pike translates as "Prudence". The third is understanding, which Pike translates as "Discrimination" [Thanks to my friend Shawn Eyer for these translations from Tom Worrell's excellent article in Ahiman, Vol. 1: A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences].
Pike also associates these seven rungs with the Seven Liberal Arts, in descending order.
  1. Astronomy
  2. Music
  3. Geometry
  4. Arithmetic
  5. Logic
  6. Rhetoric
  7. Grammar.
Since the three Theological Virtues are in both the three-rung and the seven-rung versions, I don't think the Masonic rungs added together correlate with the Tree of Life in any simple manner.

When Jacob wakes from his dream, he exclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." This to me is the most meaningful line in the whole Torah portion. God is everywhere. We say that so glibly but we rarely sense the full extent of this. Jacob is suddenly aware of the full extent of this. Genesis 28: 17 tells us that Jacob was afraid, but the Hebrew uses the word יירה, (yirah) which means both fear and awe. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes this word not as the fear one feels when his life is threatened, but rather the fear that comes when you think you are alone, and you suddenly realize that someone else is in the room with you. This is the fear in Psalm 110: 10 (Psalms 111 in the Christian reckoning): "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In the Hebrew, it is Yirah YHVH. Rather than being afraid that God is going to harm you, it is the sudden awareness that the Ineffable One is in your presence, and you in His. This is what Jacob feels when he wakes from his dream. He says, "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Genesis 28: 17].

The gate of heaven (sha'ar hashamayim) appears a lot in Kabbalistic literature. There are great books called "Sha'arei Or" (the gates of light), and "Shaarei Tzedek" (the gates of righteousness), and "Sha'arei Emunah" (the gates of faith). Indeed, by the word "gate", the Kabbalist refers to a sudden transition to another state of consciousness or an alternate reality. This concept of gates reminds me of the famous quote of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes, though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region, though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Here is a gospel choir singing Psalm 118: 19: Pitchu li sha'arei tsedek, avo vom odeh Yah. Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, and "Sha'arei Teshuvah", or Gates of Repentance (or more literally, Returning).