Jacob's ladder

One of the most wonderful and challenging writers around today is Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of The New Republic since 1983, Wieseltier writes with a pugnacious streak that is simultaneously endearing and repellant in its self-righteousness. He seems to be able to find what is wrong about everything and everyone, from Barack Obama to right-wing Israeli nationalists. Regardless of the emotions his writing arouses, however, one has to acknowledge how simply stunning his prose can be. And so I always look forward to reading his column on the back page of the The New Republic.

In a recent column (which is fairly representative of his work), Wieseltier critiqued President Obama–as he has repeatedly–for trying to leave behind the past. History is important, ideas are important, parties are important, he maintains: “For there is honor in partisanship, when the differences are philosophical; and for the purpose of social change, politics is all we have.”

While worth a good discussion, this wasn’t the part of the article that really spoke to me. What grabbed me was Wieseltier’s opening, which was about ghosts. “Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to… Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete.”

You can see how he gets from here to Obama and trying to transcend history and partisanship. But then comes this next line, which is nothing short of theological: “It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present.” That’s what got me, because it resonated deeply. We frequently feel more attached to something or someone far away–in time or space–than to what is right in front of us. In plainer terms: the grass is greener on the other side.

And this took me to a comment of the commentator Aviva Zornberg on this week’s parasha, Vayetzei, as Jacob leaves his ancestral home for Paddan-Aram and his years of service with Laban. On his way out of the land of Israel, the Torah relates that he comes–suddenly–to a place: vayifga ba-makom. The language here connotes a jumping out, an instantaneous assault. (The derivative word pigua, in modern Hebrew, refers to a terrorist attack.)

Zornberg cites classical commentaries that develop this notion, indicating that somehow Jacob was transported instantaneously to this place (which turns out to be Jerusalem), or that, even more boldly, the land of Israel itself changed in order to enable Jacob to arrive there in an instant. But the greater point, she claims, is that Jacob is capable of being in two places at once, and in this he is quintessentially human. (Looking back on my dvar Torah from last year on this parasha, it seems I was interested in the same quotation.)

The issue of absence is particularly resonant in Jacob’s story. He is the first of the Patriarchs to undergo a prolonged absence from his family and homeland in the land of Israel. And after he returns, the absence of Joseph will radically alter the next chapters of his life. In Jacob’s life, something always seems to be missing–the half of him represented by Esau, the perfect family life he imagined with Rachel, a peaceful livelihood in his homeland when he returns. And those things which are absent become the points of his most acute desire, his deepest longing.

Much is made in the contemporary zeitgeist of living in the moment. And living in the moment is certainly important for achieving a peaceful existence. But this important part of Jacob’s legacy reminds us that memories from other times, people and things in other places, have enormous power and tremendous importance. Jews are a people of memory, a people conditioned by a Diasporic existence for most of our lives. We live in the moment and out of the moment, inhabiting the land where we are and longing for the land where we should be. And in this we are inheritors of Jacob our ancestor.

Shabbat shalom.