In 2006, I wrote the following musing (But this is more than just that musing redux, so be sure to read on, even if you’ve read it before and recall my thoughts.
Hapax Upon All Your Hapaxes 5767 (2006)
Jacob has a dream. In that dream, with something reaching up from the ground to the sky with angels of G”d going up and down upon it. (Gen. 28: 12)
In various translations, that something is called a staircase, a ladder. The problem is, we don’t really know what it is. What would angels of G”d require to transport themselves to and from Heaven? Why would they need to do that in the first place? Of course, that’s reading too much into the text. It’s just a dream, and a a metaphor within it.
According to the Etz Hayim commentary (which is based on the JPS commentary) the angels of G”d “play no role in the dream and probably reflect the notion of angelic beings who patrol the earth and report back to G”d.” Well, not to disagree with Mssrs. Sarna, Levine, Milgrom and Tigay, respected scholars all, but, well, I disagree! I don’t think the angels in Jacob’s dream are at all insignificant. To put it in Freudian terms, I don’t think these cigars are cigars at all. To simply toss off these angels and their mode of conveyance as unimportant and irrelevant is a somewhat unusual way to approach the text of Torah – at least as far as our tradition has done. If something is in the Torah, surely there’s a reason it’s there. So I’m going to explore it.
The word variously translated as staircase or ladder, is sullam–סלּם–samekh, lamed, mem-sofit. And it is what scholars refers to as a hapax legomenon–from the Greek–άπαξ λεγόμευου–[something] said once–a word that occurs only once in the written records of a language, an author’s works, or a single text. Sullam appears only once in all of Torah and Tanakh.
It’s derivation is uncertain. Some scholars argue that it derives from the Hebrew root samekh, lamed, lamed – meaning “to rise up,” which is linked to the Akkadian word sullu, meaning highway. (In turn, scholars argue, the word “selah” is derivative from the same source, and where it is used in the Psalms, probably means a musical direction to raise the voice higher–though we can;t be sure if that means volume or pitch.) Other scholars believe sullam derives from the Akkadian word simmiltu which means steps or stairs.
Why does it matter? Well, what got me started on this was wondering about the difference between a ladder and stairs, and how that might play into what Jacob visualizes in his dream. Stairs are generally easier to negotiate than ladders. Ladders tend to be steeper, and they don’t have as much of a resting place for ones feet. One the other hand, stairs (until the invention of the stair railing) are devoid of anything to help the person climbing them pull themselves along with their hands. On a ladder, one almost has to use their hands to assist in climbing both up and down.
And then, in the midst of all my efforts to determine just what this sullam was, I was hit – bam! – (or as some prefer, “duh!”) with my answer.
We’re not meant to know what this word sullam means. It’s a hapax legomenon purposefully. We cannot fully fathom G”d and G”ds ways, so there is no need for us to know what conveyance for the angels Jacob saw in his dream. For purposes of telling the tale, of revealing the dream, we had to give that thing a name. Perhaps sullam doesn’t mean anything. Or perhaps a sullam is exactly what it is, it is just something beyond our understanding (or that we are simply not meant to understand.)
OK. That revelation and explanation ought to hold me. For at least a minute or so. And then I am once again urged by that voice of human hubris inside me to say that I just can’t live with that as an answer. This Shabbat, I have choices. I can simply accept that I will never know what a sullam is, and why it is in Jacobs dream and why angels of G”d are going up and down upon it. Perhaps that will bring me Shabbat peace. It might also give me Shabbat fits, and the only way I will find Shabbat peace is to not be content with the answer “it is not for you to know.” That is another choice. Perhaps this is a third alternative? Maybe that’s what I should spend Shabbat contemplating.
May this Shabbat be unique-one of a kind-for you. A Shabbat hapax legomenon–(something) said only once. Well, perhaps more sui generis. No, Shabbat is a word, and G”d did create the universe with words. So *this* Shabbat could indeed be something akin to something said only once. Or maybe just need a nonce for the occasion. How about a Googlewhack Shabbat?
OK, we’re back in 2014. I can only say, WHAT WAS I THINKING? I actually expected that “ineffable G”d” was going to work – even for a few moments? Ha! However, thinking that the impetus to not be satisfied with that as an answer might be my way into Shabbat peace was just as foolish a notion. Just as thinking that I could accept that “sullam” meant nothing, that it was just a word created where one was needed led to no peace at all.
So what do you do when all the potential solutions lead nowhere? Do you throw them all out and start again? Do you allow them to all exist simultaneously in tension with one another, and balance each other out?
That last option feels right.How do I make that work? It should be easy – after all, it’s what I am doing constantly, every day, every moment, with so many different things, concepts, ideas, beliefs, practices, ethics, morals, etc. Tension and conflict are the norm.
Aha! If tension and conflict are the norm, and Shabbat is, to some degree, about “not the norm,” then perhaps Shabbat is meant to be the time when conflict and tension get a rest. Oh, crikey! I’ve talked myself in a complete circle. Or not. Setting aside the tension and conflict between my varying understandings of what a “sullam” is and what it means does not necessarily mean defaulting to the “we’re just not meant to know” option. No, it might mean truly setting aside the conflict itself. Is that even possible? Can I achieve that state of mind?
If I am honest with myself, the answer has to be (a qualified) yes. I have experienced, and reported in these musings and other writings before, my ability to be transported to a different level of existence and experience during worship (and not just on Shabbat.) So yes, when I am engaged in worship, and especially when there is music involved,and even more so when I am one helping to create that music, I can escape from my intellectual reality long enough to not be thinking about all the conflict and tension in my thoughts. Can I do that at other times during Shabbat? Does the type of Shabbat observance in which I engage affect my ability to do this?
My own experience would tell me that observance may not be the key. As a liberal Jew, I have experienced a full range of different levels of Shabbat observance. I have experienced a fully halakhic Shabbat in a religiously observant community. I have experienced Shabbat in the wilderness, in Israel, at camp, in the synagogue and pother places. Yes, due to the inconstant nature of my own praxis, my Shabbat experiences have also included activities that would not, from a halakhic perspective, be considered appropriate. I might say that there have been situations in which my non-halakhic activities have brought me closer to G”d and felt more “shabbasdik” and meaningful than at other times when my activities were more in keeping with a traditional understanding of Shabbat. At the same time, I have had some very profound Shabbat experiences when I was engaged in a fully observant halakhic Shabbat. So no, I don’t believe “how” I do Shabbat might have that much impact on my ability to set aside the usual daily tensions and conflicts of my daily intellectual struggle with Torah (and in this specific case, the meaning of “sullam” and whether knowing what it really means even matters.)
I wonder if, rather than how, the answer may be found in “why” I do Shabbat. If I make my Shabbat purpose a way to find rest from the tensions and conflicts of my daily intellectual and spiritual struggles with Torah and Judaism and G”d and life, the universe, and everything, might I actually ne able to do so?
Wait a minute. Isn’t Shabbat exactly the time when I should be thinking about Torah, and G”d, and faith? Or have we gotten that wrong? Maybe G”d really meant us to rest our minds as well as our bodies?
Rats. I’m no closer to an answer than when I started. In fact, I’m deeper down the rabbit hole. Arrrrrrrrgggggghhhhhh!
I need something to which I can grab on. Maybe I was on to something in 2006. Making each Shabbat a “one off,” Making it its own hapax legomenon, making all our Shabbats hapax legomena. Unique experiences, each and every time. (But then the tension of the fact that we repeat the same liturgy every Shabbat intrudes. Then I think – but we can use different music – or alternate liturgy – if we are confortable doing that. Does this cycle ever end? Oh, how I envy those who can shut their brains off. Who can meditate and push all the tension and conflict out of their mind for a moment of time.) Somebody please tell my brain to shut up.
©2014 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha
Vayeitzei 5774 – Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 – Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 – Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 – Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 – Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd’s Place