Jacob is a role model for balancing the spiritual and physical. In this week’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares for an encounter with his brother Esau both physically and spiritually. On the physical level he prepares for war and engages in diplomacy—dividing his camp and sending gifts. And on the spiritual level he prays.
In last week’s Torah reading Jacob had his famous dream, of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Just as ascending in an airplane and getting some altitude can allow you to see the bigger picture, give you perspective, ascending spiritually can also give you perspective on the human condition. The purpose of the ascent is not to spend the rest of your life in the clouds, but rather to come back down to the world, and with that improved perspective make things better down here.
The Dalai Lama has said something very similar. He said the reason he pursues enlightenment is not for its own sake, but rather so that he will be better able to help alleviate human suffering in this world.
We do not have monks in the Jewish tradition. A life of contemplation, cut off from the world, is not our way. Moses may spend 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, but he does come back down to his unruly people below. Jacob may ascend the ladder and get a fresh perspective, but he also comes back down the ladder and engages in the world.
Another interpretation of the dream says that the elements in a dream are really all reflective of the dreamer – they ARE the dreamer. According to this point of view, Jacob doesn’t merely climb the ladder, rather he is the ladder. So Jacob himself is the bridge, the connection, between heaven and earth, between the physical and spiritual.
That is why in the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, we say kedoshenu kadosh Yakov. “Our holiness is the holiness of Jacob.” Our holiness is the holiness that bridges between heaven and earth, between the physical and spiritual. As the Kabbahlists teach, our mission is to bring holiness to the physical world, to raise the fallen sparks of the divine. We engage in the world – as Jacob engages with his brother Esau – and we pray.
May our personal spiritual growth always be reflected in making life better for other people.