From the Publisher
“Climbing Jacob's Ladder contains a plethora of practices for those on a spiritual path: meditations to develop concentration and a clear mind, reciting holy phrases, examining the choices we make, practicing right speech, and removing the obstacles that obstruct the flow of love.”—Spirituality & Practice
“Climbing Jacob's Ladder is a compelling portrait of the relationship between a student and a teacher, and Morinis's journey—as an assimilated Jew entering the Orthodox world of yeshiva—raises important questions about the meaning of Judaism and the search for spirituality in this world.”—The Los Angeles Times
“Clearly written and thought provoking, this book is both an engaging memoir and an introduction to the little-known heritage of Mussar, which teaches that by changing one's self, one can change the world.”—The Canadian Jewish News
“A moving account. . . . The achievement of personal growth through spirituality is richly demonstrated by this touching account of the author's journey to Judaism.”—Publishers Weekly
“Alan Morinis, in his spiritual journey, has struck a rich vein of Judaism. This offering feels like a heart-gift to us.”—Ram Dass, author of Still Here
“Offers insightful treats for anyone who follows a spiritual path.”—Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
“Alan Morinis has provided us with a fascinating, deeply personal account of his journey back to Jewish spirituality through an encounter with the little-known heritage of Mussar, the Jewish discipline of self-perfection. This is a beautifully written and engaging book, a timely reminder that by changing ourselves we can begin to change the world.”—Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth
“This book is essential for every thinking person. Like Jethro of the Bible, Alan Morinis found the secret of dignified human life in the teachings of Mussar after all other searches were fruitless.We owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing some light in one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history.”—Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, MD, author of Angels Don’t Leave Footprints
“Morinis’s shimmering portrait of one of the masters of Mussar is religious portraiture rarely paralleled. A delight for novice and expert alike.”—Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, author of The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Mussar Movement
“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a gutsy, glowing account of one man’s encounter with a potent spiritual practice and how it transformed his life.This is a precious book—that rare combination of solid wisdom and good literature.”—Larry Dossey, MD, author of Healing Beyond the Body
“A compelling story of spiritual discovery and initiation. This tale of personal liberation focuses on no-nonsense lessons in rising out of meaninglessness and spiritual fog.”—Thomas Moore, author of Care of Soul
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One: The Gate of Starting Out
In a classic Jewish story, a student tells his friend that he is going to study with a teacher. “What do you hope to learn?” his friend asks him. “I want to see how he ties his shoes,” he answers.
The streets of New York streamed with people, and the stairs to the subway were like a giant drain sucking up the wash of a human rainstorm. I boarded a train at Penn Station on my way to my first meeting with Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr at his yeshiva in the unlikely mecca of Far Rockaway, on Long Island. It was a warm day in the early spring of 1999, and I had already traveled a long way.
I had spent the night with a friend in Manhattan, having arrived the day before after a five-hour flight from my hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. I had hugged my girls good-bye when they went off to school in the morning, and my wife had driven me to the airport. Our farewells were subdued. I could feel that my family was happy for me as I finally stepped out on this journey that had been in the making for two years, and yet there was more than a touch of apprehension in the air as well. None of us, including me, really knew where I was going or what I was about to find there. Would I come back as the dad and husband they loved, or different in ways that might drive wedges into our close relationships?
It had been an even longer journey emotionally from the brutal moment of awakening I had suffered two years before. Little by little my heart had healed, helped along by the reading and learning I was doing in the classic texts of the Mussar tradition. At first the dense and archaic philosophical language in these centuries-old books had been a barrier to me, but in time I had developed ways to connect myself to their wisdom. When a writer said “men,” for example, I would think “people.” When he talked about “sin,” I would take this to mean ignorant or mistaken actions that led to suffering. In this way, I had read and reread, reinterpreted, and come up with images and metaphors that were meaningful to me while still remaining true to the core of their insights. Although it was the brilliance of these insights that had drawn me deeper into Mussar, I had now come to the point where I needed more than books. The theory was great, but it appeared to me like still-life paintings of a distant land. I needed to see how the wisdom of Mussar translated into the living qualities of someone who walked its path, and I hoped to find that person in Rabbi Perr.
On the flight and again on the train, I nervously ran through all the preparations I had made. I knew I was guaranteed to be as much of an “odd duck” in the regimented yeshiva environment as a Canada goose among penguins, but still, I had tried to remember to bring all the special things I knew I would need. I had brought a hat, because men in Orthodox communities wear hats—though I knew theirs would be black and mine was sort of grayish, which made me wonder if, instead of helping me “blend in,” it would only point up just how much of an alien I was in their world. I had packed my prayer shawl, my tallis, and borrowed tefillin, the little black leather boxes with thongs that observant men strap on daily, which I had put on a grand total of twice in my life. I expected that the men would all have beards, though I had decided not to grow one myself. Even if they were all bearded, I had told myself, I wasn’t on this journey to become one of them, certainly not before I had even set foot among them. I was on my way to deepen my learning of Mussar, and when I remembered that fact, a bright swell of happiness rolled through me. But bang behind it came a wave of hot anxiety, as the reality of what I was doing actually hit home. I’d never even laid eyes on a yeshiva in my life, and now I was on my way to meet the senior rabbi of one on his own turf.
As the train rocked me closer to that first meeting, I wondered what Rabbi Perr would be like. I had had only that first cold-call conversation with him and then one other to set the date and time of my visit, so I really had no clues to go on. Would he be warm and friendly or standoffish and detached? Joyous or austere? Approachable or remote? And I also wondered—and worried—how he would welcome an outsider like me. Would he be the kind of person to judge me on my clean-shaven cheeks and funny hat, or would he focus at a deeper level to see me as just another soul out on God’s road?
By this time I had already come to see myself as a soul. That’s one of the first things any student of Mussar needs to understand and acknowledge, deeply and clearly. Each of us is a soul. Mostly we have been told that we “have” a soul, but that’s not the same thing. To have a soul would indicate that we are primarily an ego or a personality that in some way “possesses” a soul. It’s an early step on the path of Mussar to unlearn that linguistic misconception and to realize that our essence is the soul and that all aspects of ego and personality flow from that essence. At its core the soul is pure, but habits, tendencies, and imbalances often obscure some of that inner light. The Mussar discipline was devised to help us correct whatever shortcomings may be preventing the light of our soul from shining through.
At last the train pulled into the Lawrence station, where I’d been told to get off, and I knew all my questions would be answered soon enough. A short taxi ride through tree-lined suburban streets took me to the squat, red-brick building that housed the yeshiva. For a moment I stood outside and stared at the bunker-like facade, hoping to make some connection between this ordinary, American-looking place and the ancient world of Mussar I knew from books. As I stood there, all the nervousness and uncertainty I had been feeling suddenly welled up into a tidal wave of anxiety that washed over me and left me feeling drained and totally unprepared for this meeting. In that moment, like a little kid being ushered toward his first day at a new school, I had the overwhelming urge simply to turn and flee. Except, I reminded myself, no one was making me come here. I had made the journey to the bottom of these stairs only because I really wanted to be here, maybe even needed to be. And so, with hat on head and trepidation in hand, I walked up the steps and pushed open the door to find myself in a long, narrow hallway teeming with boys in black yarmulkes rushing, jostling, and yelling at one another.
The door labeled OFFICE was right there, so I quickly made for refuge and found myself in a tiny room with a woman sitting at a desk. I asked for Rabbi Perr, and she wordlessly nodded over her shoulder toward another short hallway. Students and bearded teachers in ties and dark suits popped in and out of the several offices that opened onto the narrow passage. At the end I came to a door that stood partially ajar and was marked with a plaque that read ROSH YESHIVA, “head of the yeshiva.” My way was blocked by a man leaning through the opening and talking to the person inside. Finally he left, and I poked my head into the small room.
Directly across from me sat a man whom I judged to be in his sixties wearing a round-brimmed black hat that tilted backward when he raised his head to look at me. His neck, collar, and the upper half of his shirt were hidden by a thick, wiry, graying beard, and as he rose to greet me the tails of his black frock coat fell to the backs of his knees. He presented an imposing, even patriarchal figure, though his eyes, peering out between the brim of his hat and the top of his beard, were large, dark, and warm.
I introduced myself and he responded enthusiastically “Welcome!”
Slowly he crossed to me. Then, taking my hand in both of his, those soft eyes gazing directly into mine, he asked, “May I give you a kiss?”
A kiss! I had thought that, in my anxiety, I’d rehearsed every possible greeting I might conceivably receive from this man, but a kiss hadn’t even crossed my mind. I must have given some sign of consent, however, because he cupped my face in his hands and, through the rasp of his beard, I felt his warm lips on my cheek. In that moment, relief coursed through my entire body.
He ushered me to a chair, then stuck his head out the door and nabbed a student whom he directed to get me a cup of coffee and a bagel. Settling back into his own chair, he took a deep breath, and said, “So, you are here.”