D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
I spent a lifetime in hell and it only took me twelve steps to get to heaven.
The 12-Steps were originally developed as an aid to overcoming an addiction to alcohol. The program’s success however, influenced the formation of additional groups supporting those in recovery from other addictive disorders. The language of the steps emphasizes the presence of God – often explained as the God of our understanding or a Higher Power. These diverse perceptions of God allow for a wide range of interpretations and religious beliefs.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, arrives “ba-makom.” Often translated as place, makom is also another name for God. But before we have a chance to wonder about the relevance of this name, the text informs us that it is night. Resting his head on a stone Jacob goes to sleep. In this peaceful makom he dreams of angels going up and down a ladder extending from the earth all the way up to heaven. In the dream God informs Jacob that he and his descendants will be given the ground on which he is lying. God then promises to always protect and to always be with Jacob. When he wakes up Jacob proclaims אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָֽעְתִּי, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it.”
Rabbi Avraham Zalmans notes how a person’s qualities resemble a ladder. Just as a ladder needs steps and a high place on which to lean, so too people require the help of steps and a high makom, a God of our understanding on which to lean. The steps function as a barrier to prevent one from sin. In addition, the vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder demonstrates that the path towards God is not a straight line. Descending – or falling -- is normal.
As perhaps the Torah’s first “12-Stepper,” Jacob makes a decision to turn his will over to the God of his understanding. Jacob the grifter declares his yearning for a high place against which to lean. After a lifetime living in a hell of his own making, it only took Jacob 12 steps to get to heaven.