Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3
Jake was fired from his job this week. After 18 months of investment and work with the new company, and moving across the country with his family, it turned out that Jake was not the person the company was looking for. They expected somebody different and, without warning, Jake was told to clean out his office and leave.
For Jake, the new job meant everything: a new home for his family, a step up the professional ladder, pride, a larger salary. So the word “fire” felt like a sucker punch to his abdomen, leaving only emptiness, disorder and loss.
As much as we are urged to connect with others in our tradition, making connections with others, especially those you only know for a short while, can always be risky. There are shorter honeymoons with work places these days and many companies expect us to begin performing from day one. You can be sure if you entered with a passion to connect with the team on the way in, you will experience a painful separation of equal measure on the way out.
The pain and anxiety for Jake of covering his mortgage and other payments, disrupting the lives of his wife and children and the hard, full-time job of finding work was daunting, especially in a new city. Pain and anxiety would also mask whatever lessons learned. The newly unemployed can get really depressed.
Our biblical Jacob was told by his parents to leave home at the end of last week’s parasha. For all the promises and blessings spoken over him by his father, Isaac, Jacob came up empty handed on his way out. Where was the “dew of heaven and the fat places of the soil, abundance of corn and new wine?” (Genesis 27:28) Didn’t the wave of a magic wand with the blessing confer on him instant respect? It certainly didn’t come from Esau, who was scheming to kill him.
Despite the hullabaloo about tricking blind Isaac into getting Esau’s blessing, Jacob left penniless and would never see his mother again. There would be no magic wand passed over Jacob’s head for fortune and fame. As he headed off to find his Uncle Lavan, it was clear that Jacob would have to earn everything through hard work. Esau the hunter had the reputation and the materials, the women and the children; Jacob was cut off.
The vision of the angels and the ladder came at a transitional and fearful time in Jacob’s life. The pain of separation ran deep; all he had was the pack on his back.
But the Torah teaches that painful separations come with opportunities; we just need to see the angels. I believe angels are manifestations of God in other people who protect us and guide us along the way. They are guardian angels who see you when you are invisible to others. They know your pain and can help in whole or in part along your journey in life.
When Jacob was first introduced to the vision of the ladder, he didn’t know what to think. It surprised him because it was unfamiliar to the sedentary life of the contemplative shepherd. The ladder prepared Jacob for the next leg of the journey. He would need to climb and stretch himself. He would need to ascend and view reality from above. According to Rashi, the ladder stretched over the border between Jacob’s home and the land beyond (the world of uncertainty). The angels of the home world handed Jacob off to the angels of the foreign world. The spiritual journey, when accepted by the pilgrim, tested and challenged him especially when he moved out of his comfort zone. The old language, the old tools of the trade needed to be refashioned. Jacob thought he would become a prince but the new reality, introduced by the ladder-bridge and its angels, pointed him in a new direction. Incredibly, the pain of separation disappeared and Jacob found hope.
Look around and be grateful for your guardian angels. They appear most prominently in the pain of separation and encourage us to go forward, in turns in the road we might not expect, in shadowy valleys that can crush our spirit at times, but we continue to pray and trust that they know what is best for our lives. The journey of the soul is one of faith going forward. Jacob at the end of his life is grateful for “Hamalach Goel Oti,” (Genesis 48:16) the Guardian Angel who keeps him from harm — the one who helped him climb the ladder bridge, the one who blessed his hard work and provided for family and fortune (despite obstacles) and the one with whom he struggled. I believe that in pain and suffering, our guardian angels help us to cope and, with a smile and few words, help us to pass into the new normal of our lives.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)