I recently learned that symbolism is part of the pre-fast Yom Kippur meal. In particular, the shape of a ladder is added to the top of the challah, or the challah itself is baked in the shape of a ladder. This can represent either the hope that we will ascend to great heights, or the reminder that at this time God is deciding who will ascend and descend — who will live and who will die.
I love the image of a ladder — especially Jacob’s ladder. So much so that I’ve been desperate to get a tattoo of it. I won’t do it (bli neder), don’t worry — I figure I’m pushing enough other rabbinic boundaries. I suppose that is why I love the story, and the image, since I see in it the power of boundary-crossing. Jacob has left the only home he has ever known to escape the wrath of his brother. The text says “vayifga bamakom” — the verb insinuates a kind of collision with the place. When he sleeps he dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, and angels are ascending and descending. To me this moment represents the in-between, the blurring of the boundary, border-crossing.
I have long considered boundary-crossing to be a primary spiritual practice of mine. I experienced boundary-crossing as a spiritual practice when I visited inmates in a Massachusetts prison, during the countless times I have crossed checkpoints in Israel and Palestine, and when I cross 8 Mile Rd. To be boundary-crossers is our lineage. The word “ivrim”, Hebrews, can be translated as “the ones who cross.”
My love of ladders and boundary-crossing come together in a remarkable piece of Talmud in Taanit 28a:
“Once, the evil kingdom of Greece issued a decree of apostasy against the Jews, that they may not bring wood for the arrangement of the altar and that they may not bring first fruits to Jerusalem. And they placed guards on the roads,[…], so that the Jews could not ascend for the pilgrim Festival.
What did the worthy and sin-fearing individuals of that generation do? They brought baskets of first fruits, and covered them with dried figs, and took them with a pestle on their shoulders. And when they reached the guards, the guards said to them: Where are you going? They replied: we are going to prepare two round cakes of pressed figs with the mortar that is down the road before us and with the pestle that we are carrying on our shoulders. As soon as they passed the guards, they decorated the baskets of first fruits and brought them to Jerusalem.[What about the wood?…] They brought their pieces of wood and prepared ladders [sulamot], and they placed the ladders on their shoulders and went off to Jerusalem. When they reached the guards, the guards said to them: Where are you going? They replied: We are going to bring down doves from the dovecote that is located down the road before us and with these ladders that are on our shoulders. As soon as they had passed the guards, they dismantled the ladders and took them up to Jerusalem. […]
Isn’t that amazing?! When the Greeks tried to stop the Jews from carrying first fruits and wood for the altar to Jerusalem, they used figs and ladders to trick the border guards. So not only are ladders a bridge, a tool for border-crossing, they are also mechanism for thwarting empire. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Arundhati Roy. In 2003 at the World Social Forum in Brazil she said,
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories.”
I tell this story of the figs and ladders: our story. The Jews do not respect the artificial border that has been constructed — we refuse to be kept from our sacred duty. We hide our first fruits and we shapeshift our altars, undermining empire. I can hear my ancestors say: you can stand here and pretend to control us, we will outsmart you. Perhaps, in addition to being the People of the Book, we are also the People of the Ladder.
We participated in other acts of solidarity such as helping to clean the streets, in itself a political act, seeing as the municipality neglects such duties. Despite life in that neighborhood being very dangerous for Palestinian residents, as a Jewish-American I did not feel our group to be in danger at any point. Except one. Our hosts asked us to accompany them down a VERY tall ladder. Despite my better judgement, I allowed Justin and a few others to climb. The ladder was at least three or four stories tall. Why? Settlers had literally built houses right up to a Palestinian home, effectively encircling it. Razor wire blocked the only remaining entrance.
It is hard to overstate the horror I have witnessed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is hard to overstate the pain that I feel in seeing our people restrict the ability of others to move. It is hard to overstate the shock of seeing our sacred symbols used for violence and displacement: a star of David sprayed on a shuttered Palestinian shop in Hebron, the letters of our holy language spelling out “Death to arabs – mavet l’aravim”. It is hard to overstate the grief I feel that a Jewish history of righteous suffering and fear is being reified and manipulated to justify terror. And it is hard to overstate the tragedy that the descendants of those who used figs and ladders to subvert the border are now the border police. We were meant to be the boundary-crossers, not the boundary enforcers! We march up to false idols of state power and say “eyn lanu melech elah Adonai – we have no king other than God”.
The Malchuyot liturgy of Rosh Hashanah represents a counter-empire message in Jewish theology. I hear in the Malchuyot the lie of empire exposed: the lie that security can be achieved through sovereignty — that a human government can be strong, impenetrable. That humans can reign over other humans, can dominate them. This belief cuts us off from our humanity, from God, from our sense of interdependence and mutual vulnerability — it encourages us do things like seek safety in the wrong places, in the wrong ways. When we put our faith in armies, in walls, and blockades, we are practicing avodah zarah – idolatry.
On Yom Kippur we turn to the martyrology, our liturgy honoring Jews who died for being Jews. Their literal bodies were on the line because they undermined empire with uncontainable subversive truth. This is our tradition. This is our inheritance. I’m not suggesting we choose martyrdom. But we must answer the question the stories of our martyrs pose to us: what are our non-negotiable values? for what beliefs will we cross no line?
The midrash imagines there is more to the encounter between Jacob and God via the ladder. It teaches that Jacob sees empires ascending and descending: Babylon, Greece, Medea, and Rome. God invites Jacob to come up, but Jacob is afraid that he too will fall. God tries to reassure Jacob that he will not fall, but Jacob is unconvinced and does not climb. The rabbis seem to understand this as a grave error, as a sin of lack of faith. But what if Jacob isn’t afraid that Jewish power will wane, but rather that we too will descend into tyranny? Into the kind of oppression characteristic of empire? Perhaps Jacob our ancestor was resisting falling for the the myth that one people can stay on top of the ladder. What goes up must come down.
I have to admit that truth to be terrifying. In the US, we have an administration which, in a fresh way, exposes the fallacies and the violence of American empire. An administration that forces us to imagine the real decline of U.S. domination. What will our lives look like? Will we be safe? Geopolitical change is part of the flow of human existence — power shifts, rises and falls. The instability of human power is written into the fabric of history. I know that nothing is static, and yet, when it comes to facing the insecurity of my own power and stability, I can barely wrap my mind around it. That is the call of Yom Kippur: not just to contemplate the fragility of an individual human’s life, but to face the truth that nothing in the human realm is forever. What are we willing to give up? How will we prepare for having more justice and less control?
On Shavuot we bake challot in the shape of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai.
On Rosh Hashanah they become round to represent the circle of life and the possibilities of the new year.
On Yom Kippur the challah morphs into a ladder.
Some say the ladder is a warning that on this day God is judging us. Some say it represents a wish — a blessing that we will rise to great heights. The ladder of warning, the ladder of blessing. We are the ladder carriers, and the ladder knows there is another way — that what once seemed unreachable, is within our grasp.