As Burt Sosovsky hung from the roof of his house in Allamuchy, New Jersey, holding on to the cold metal edge of the gutter for dear life, far from the ground, a few thoughts should have run through his mind.
He should have thought about his wife, Clara, urging him to call Gutter Busters to clear out the leaves that gather in the gutters every autumn.
“You are an excellent accountant!” she said. “But handy you’re not. The thought of you working on a ladder does not do my heart good.”
At least he wasn’t working on a ladder anymore. It lay on the cement patio of his lovely backyard, far below him.
Perhaps he should have wondered why his wife did not respond to him hysterically calling her name for the last five minutes. Maybe she was on the phone or listening to music. Or maybe she was trying to teach him a lesson—perish the thought! Strange things run through your mind—or don’t—when your life is in peril. He would beg her forgiveness if he survived this ordeal.
Or maybe he should have thought about how much he loved his family, or even how from this lofty angle it was crystal clear that the bushes in the backyard definitely needed trimming.
And yet, the only thing he could think about was the rabbi’s chumash class from last night.
It was not a wholly outlandish thought. The rabbi had spoken about a ladder, although not an adjustable, aluminum, garden variety like the one he anxiously eyed far below him. No, the rabbi’s ladder was more holy.
Rabbi Abramowitz had spoken about Jacob’s ladder—that is, the ladder in Yaakov’s dream when he was leaving Canaan to flee from Esav, his brother. But it wasn’t the ladder per se that made him think of the class. It was the rabbi’s point that he made about it.
Burt could picture the rabbi’s class very clearly—perhaps it was one of those rare moments of clarity one has when one’s life is in mortal danger, like seeing your entire life pass before your eyes. Rabbi Abramowitz had spoken about the place where Yaakov had his dream. The Midrash suggests that the dream occurred at Mount Moriah, where the Beit Hamikdash would eventually be located. Other commentators, including the Sforno, state that the place of the dream was the town of Luz, a place which had no special spiritual significance before Yaakov passed there.
So what difference does it make? To Burt, as he dangled by his fingertips, the interpretation made a big difference. According to the Midrashic interpretation, Yakov had the dream in a place of great holiness, thereby explaining the presence of angels ascending and descending a ladder. That is why Yaakov exclaims, “God is in this place and I didn’t know. This is an awesome place.” But according to the Sforno, Yaakov is saying something completely different. He’s saying, “Wow! Here I am in Luz (a place of no unusual distinction that may or may not have had a lot in common with Allamuchy), and God is here. I guess that means that God is everywhere, and anywhere can be holy.
That was definitely a consolation to Burt at that moment. As he hung from his gutters contemplating the end, he wanted to believe that God was everywhere, particularly in his backyard. And although it may not have been a place of distinct holiness, perhaps his Creator might be there to preserve his tenuous existence. He really wasn’t such a bad guy.
The patio door slid open, and out came Clara.
“What? Oh, will you look at that!”
“Thank you God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Clara may not have been a group of angels, but at that moment he was extremely glad to see her.
“Clara, the ladder. Help me, please.”
“Burt, honey, light of my life, reason for my existence, we live in a ranch house. You’re like five feet off the ground. Just let go.”
Burt looked down. It was much more than five feet. He couldn’t just let go.
“Just trust me. It will be fine. Just let go.”
Burt squeezed his eyes shut and let go. The drop was brief, and he did not seem to have broken anything, excluding his pride.
“Gutter Busters,” Clara said, with no obvious tone of irony. “Google it.” She walked back inside and slid the patio door closed.
Burt stood alone among the backyard shrubs.
“Wow! God was in this place and I had no idea.”
He scooped up the ladder and carried it to the garage.
Based on: “Unlocking the Torah Text,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Bereishit. What Place? Pgs 151-156.
Maggid Correction: Special thanks to Josh Stiefel for pointing out that Eisav came to meet Yaakov with 400 men, not 300, a correction from last week. Thank you Yeshivat Noam for teaching excellent chumash skills.
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics and no longer cleans his own gutter.
By Larry Stiefel