Delivered at The Riverway Project at Temple Israel
December 9, 2016 ~ 9 Kislev 5777
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
** In memory of my buddy Vito Leybman, who emigrated to Fort Wayne from the FSU, and was tragically killed by a drunk driver in December of 1999.
It seemed like the middle of the night. In sweatshirts and rumpled hair we would pile into the minivan and drive to the airport. We’d park our van and everyone had a job. My mom carried her guitar, my dad carried my sister, and my brother and I proudly held our homemade banner printed from a Commodore 64 on that perforated printer paper that is still perfect for banners. And as a family, we crossed the bridge from long term parking and headed to international arrivals. As my mom played Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem and a number of other families like us sang together these words of welcome, down the ramp came one of the many Jewish families from the Former Soviet Union who would make their new home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
As our families warmly greeted this family - the Kutsenoks - with bright smiles, books and toys, apartments readied for living, and support of many kinds, they looked truly tired, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Fort Wayne’s airport is called “Fort Wayne International Airport,” a title that is a bit of a ruse. But in my young mind, I imagined that this family had flown from Ukraine or Russia directly to Indiana in an almost clandestine trip that could only occur in the middle of the night.
As it turns out, it was only perhaps 9:30. And the Kutsenok family who arrived on this particular night, exiting the ramp from the plane tried and grateful became good family friends. I grew up at Temple with Alex; his sister Anya was the same age as mine; our parents sang in the choir together. So the other day, I asked Alex, now a teacher in Miami, what their journey was like. In fact, they did not fly directly from Kiev to Fort Wayne. Their path, despite waiting many years to depart and frankly decades seeking religious freedom, their actual journey was rather quick. From Kiev to Moscow to NYC to Fort Wayne in a matter of 6 or so days. It was at a time when HIAS was still known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and when Jewish communities could sponsor Russian Jewish families directly. This scene played out numerous times in the early 90s, as I’m sure many of you recall. It had a profound impact on me because Alex came into my world, and Slava, then Vito and his brother Dmitri, and then Galina, and Natasha, and many others. Each one came down the airplane ramp, seemingly in the middle of the night, and into our lives.
Flashback, wayyyy back.
It seemed like the middle of the night. The sun set much earlier than usual. His hair was rumpled. He was tired. He had been walking for days. And amid a pile of rocks, Jacob lay his head down on a stone and he had a dream.
וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃
In Jacob’s dream, a stairway - in Hebrew Sulam - was set on the ground, its top reached to the sky, and angels of God (malachei elohim) were (olim v’yordim) going up and down on it. The rabbinic sages go to town with commentaries on who these angels of God might be, whether or not this is a really a dream, and why this particular place where Jacob sleeps might be significant. Further, the image of Sulam Ya’akov - Jacob’s Ladder - permeates literature and pop culture. An Israeli short story goes as far to describe the angels going up and down the ladder high-fiving; there is an exercise cardio machine, called Jacob’s Ladder, that costs 4 grand; a 1990s horror film bears this title; there is a cut of beef, short ribs, referred to as Jacob’s ladder (Kosher, of course); clearly Jacob’s dream inspired Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”; and Jacob’s Ladder, akin to cats cradle, was a string game we played as kids. Most of these icons fit pretty solidly into the ladder imagery - the type with rungs that firepeople use in rescues.
But Rabbi Mehlman, our Senior Scholar at Temple Israel and my professor in rabbinical school, illuminated for me the other day a different idea from another translation. In biblical scholarship, every translation for every word is in and of itself a commentary, espousing an opinion, or a particular academic approach to the bible and/or theology. When Scholar Robert Alter from UC Berkeley came out with his Torah translation, Sulam was not a stairway to heaven. Sulam was not a ladder. It was definitely not short ribs. Rather, Alter translates this profound scene in Torah - Sulam Yakov - as Jacob’s ramp. It definitely doesn’t have quite the same ring. In the footnotes, Alter points out that the word Sulam appears only once in all of Torah - in this week’s portion in Genesis. And Alter teaches it’s probably not a ladder. Rather, more likely the descriptive context uses language associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat. A ziggurat, according to our knowledge of other cradles of civilization, was probably a vast ramp that stretched above terraced landings.
Let’s focus further on this image of a ramp and those people who are maybe angels, maybe messengers, but beings of some sort who are going up and down - olim v’yordim - the Torah text reads. It is significant that these beings are able to move, to enter, to exit, to pursue, and to reach the heavens, too. And here’s the catch: the word olim, as a noun in Hebrew, means immigrant. Jacob himself, Alter teaches, was known “as a border crosser, a man of liminal experience.” And in this portion - he is on the go, like an immigrant or refugee of some sort. His dream, then, and the ramp signify potential. Taking Alter’s translation and adding it to our current reality, I read this story of Jacob’s dream and the Sulam Yakov, Jacob’s ramp, as a ramp to refuge. Spiritually and literally Sulam Ya’akov is potential. It is a ramp of access for refugees.
The ramp of access to refuge for the over 60 million people displaced from their homes in the world’s largest refugee crises of our time is long and winding. Unlike the Mesopotamian terraced landscape over which a ziggurat ramp provided access, the opportunity to move up and down - olim and yordim - and through the world and into safety is, as we all know, quite harrowing.
The long process of escaping one’s home, gaining refugee status, and then going through the many un-terraced levels of global and US bureaucracy is equally harrowing, indeterminate at best. And at any moment, one’s emigration process can be halted. And if you make it, thriving is the next challenge. We don’t yet know as our world shifts politically how refugee ramps will be impacted. Regardless, with our community here at Temple Israel and in Greater Boston, in partnership with JF&CS and HIAS, we are serving as a ramp of access for refugees. We are building a ramp of support to help them move from striving to be here to thriving here. We are not able to settle as many families as we would like. And yet, we will settle two families. Unlike my childhood experience, only a select few trained and skilled volunteers will ever have the chance to meet them and know them. We will hear more at the conclusion of services about how we can directly help build this ramp for refuge.
In the meantime, the Torah offers us this spiritual message in order to sustain us in this unstable and unpredictable time. Build a ramp - or build a bridge, or a stairway, or a ladder, or a ziggurat. Build and find other builders to build with you. For those who seek refuge spiritually and those who are refugees most literally, ramp up your energy, ramp up your power, ramp up your voice.