The Stairway to Heaven:
From Union to Dispersion . . . to Union?
We started with check-ins, then a meditation from Reb Kalonymous Shapira’s book, “Conscious Community”. Regarding our propensity for forgetfulness, that we tend to forget who we are and why we’re here, he refers us to Deuteronomy 32:18: “You have forgotten that God gave birth to you – T’zur y’lad’cha . . . va’tish’kach”. Just knowing that you have forgotten something helps you to remember.
Leading up to the introduction of Sarai and Abram in Chapter 11 of Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel. A curious juxtaposition to consider, as we entered our study with the words:
“The whole earth was of one language and common purpose”.
How far from our reality is that! So immediately we know that this story is dealing with another way of Being, likely located in another World altogether. One view: this is a book by man that helps us understand the way things are. In other words, this is the book of our mythology.
“They said . . . let us build a tower with its top in the heavens . . . “
Who are they? They are not named. We find the people struggling to get to the Heavens, to the spiritual realm, and are told they were doing so “to make a name for ourselves” – had they also forgotten who gave birth to them?
“They could not hear the language of their neighbors . . .”
Hashem descends, confuses their language so they cannot understand (literally “hear”, “shema” , in the Hebrew) one another, and disperses them over the face of the earth. So this is the beginning of our lives as separate tribes, communities, nations, speaking different languages, difficulty in communications. Maybe this includes the different “languages” of men and women?
But what was really so wrong with being united in language and purpose, attempting to get back to the Heavens? Aren’t we always striving for spiritual growth, to be closer to Spirit? But it would seem that our mythology may be telling us that God had a different idea about what that striving is supposed to look like. Somehow that striving for unity is not supposed to be quite so easy as building a tower of unity together as a kind of summer camp, kumbayah experience. It’s as if God said, “Hmmm, I know I’m the one who created things this way, but this isn’t quite working out. Better switch gears to “Humankind Struggles for Unity, Version 2.1”.
We get the sense of God kind of working through this process of creation, just as He/She hit the “reset” button in kicking Adam and Eve out of the garden, or sending the flood in Noah’s day. Is it God’s design then for us on earth, in this physical plane, that we find a horizontal union with the spiritual, rather than a vertical union as represented by the Tower of Babel? After all, Creation occurred through the actions of Elohim, the name of God representing diversity, multiplicity, chaos, and all possibilities.
It is part of our Hebrew philosophy that awareness of the separations is what makes them holy. And does this horizontal union involve us all, somehow, coming from places of such difference - different languages, different ways of being and seeing the world - to somehow build a mosaic of connection and unity on THIS plane? That our human task is really not to build a stairway to heaven, but a fully interconnected and interdependent jigsaw puzzle of humanity? What is the common language that can help us do that? Some possibilities, of languages we all understand: tears, music, art, maybe the tekiah of shofar . . .
“Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran”
Torah next enumerates the 10 generations from Noah to Abram, ending each sentence with “and he begot sons and daughters”, confirming that the begetting of the girls is equal in each generation to that of the boys. Eventually, we arrive at the family of Terach, and are introduced to the stars of the next part of the story.
Iscah is Sarai
Abram’s brother Haran dies. Haran is the father of Lot, who comes to live with his Uncle Abram, as well as 2 daughters, Milcah and Iscah. Nahor marries Milcah, and Abram takes his niece Iscah as a wife. The commentators tell us Iscah is Sarai. Iscah means “to see” or “to gaze”, so we learn that Sarai was a seer, that she could see the future based on holy inspiration. The 2 names indicate her 2 missions in life: Iscah is the name indicating her personal greatness, as seer, prophetess; Sarai/Sarah (meaning “princess”) links her in connection with her husband Abram/Abraham to their joint mission as a couple. From the point of their marriage, the name Iscah is no longer used in the Torah, though undoubtedly her individual purpose as Iscah is now interwoven into her purpose within the couple as Sarai. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out, as we read the travels, trials, and events in the lives of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in the weeks ahead.
Why study together?
An observation on our process today. It was quite remarkable to see the faces and feel the energy of the 5 of us at the end of the morning compared to the beginning: much lighter, freer, enlivened, excited by the process we had just shared. We felt connected to the energy that has moved Jews throughout the ages to gather, in small groups together, to study Torah, to learn our stories together, the lessons they hold, both obvious and cryptic. But if we’ve done this for so long, why is it we seem no closer to that mosaic of spiritual union than we seemed at Babel?
Maybe we’re closer than we think. Or maybe we should consider how far apart we’d be now if we hadn’t done this over the centuries? Or maybe it’s time to open up the circles, to study the sacred texts of others, with others? What does the Koran say of the meeting of Abram and Sarai?