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Climbing the Ladder

This week’s Torah reading contains the famous dream Yaakov had his first night on his journey from Bersheva to Charan. The Torah describes the ladder as resting on the earth and extending into the heavens. Angels are seen ascending and descending on it. Standing over Yaakov, God promises to give the land he is sleeping on to his descendants. God informs him that his offspring will be numerous and they will spread out in all directions. “All peoples of the earth will bless themselves by you and your offspring.” Finally, God promises Yaakov that He is with him and will guard him until he returns to this land.” (Bereshit 28:12-15) No doubt there are many interpretations of this dream by Yaakov. Based on the commentary of the Ibn Ezra, I offer the following understanding for your consideration.

The Ibn Ezra comments, “Matters below (on Earth) depend on what is on high as if a ladder is between them.” A ladder is a tool used by a person to reach something above which is otherwise unreachable. In Yaakov’s dream, the ladder represents man’s striving to elevate himself, to go beyond the physical world in which he is born, advancing to a higher spiritual level. This process is only applicable to mankind. Only mankind is a hybrid of the physical and spiritual worlds.

In Yaakov’s dream, the ladder is planted firmly on the ground. The earth, which represents the physical world, is the point of departure for every person. As a person begins to think about and analyze the physical world around him, he discovers that there are ideas by which it works. These ideas are non-physical and are represented by angels. These abstract ideas govern the way the physical world works. As a person puts together and sees connections between non-physical ideas, he attains an even more abstract understanding of the universe. He has made an abstraction on an abstraction. He advances up the ladder towards the most abstract concepts behind all reality, those that relate to God, the source of all existence.

It is important to notice and consider that in Yaakov’s dream, God is not at the top of the ladder. That image would give man two false ideas: first, that God is in any way attached to the physical world and second, that ultimate knowledge of God is attainable by man.

Angels ascending and descending the ladder teaches us another important idea. Growth in spirituality, the knowledge of reality, is not always in a continuous, upward, linear fashion. There may be painful setbacks along the way and we must be able to tolerate them. For example, scientists thought at the time of Newton that they figured out what caused the motion of the celestial bodies as well as those on Earth. The abstract laws of gravity were formulated. Not long after, questions on this explanation arose from different discoveries in science. Eventually, the questions were so strong that the idea became untenable. The scientific community had to regroup, abandon its idea and reexamine its premises. In short, they took a step or two back down the ladder. Finally, a new idea was formulated that explained all the questions the former theory could not account for. Advancement back up the ladder then ensued. But giving up long-held notions of how the universe works can be painful, particularly to someone who has invested their life’s work in trying to maintain those ideas.

In a similar way, we must approach our attitude and understanding of mitzvot, ethical behavior, and God’s interaction with man all of which shape and mold our philosophy of life. Since they are based on God’s infinite knowledge we will never reach total comprehension. First, each mitzvah is constructed as precisely and abstractly as any law of science. Their proper understanding is deep and complex, often times calling for the scholar to rethink his premises and revise his understanding.

Second, events happen in our lives that challenge our philosophy of life to its core. They may even cause us to call into question our presumed notions of God’s justice in the world. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, as well as other great figures in Tanakh, faced challenges we would never want to face. Famine and economic downturn, prison, family dissension, kidnapping and rape, the death of children, persecution, and shunning from society were hardships experienced by our founders. They were challenged in their belief, to say the least. They too had to regroup and revise, take a step or two down the ladder before renewing their climb upward. What they never did was to get off the ladder and succumb to their purely physical nature.

Our approach in Judaism is spelled out in Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of Our Fathers.” In 2:6 our great sage Hillel says, “An ignorant person cannot be pious.” In contradistinction to other religions, Judaism does not subscribe to the notion of being “born again” or having an “overnight” conversion. In His Torah, God has set out a roadmap for mankind. It is a path, however, that requires a person to toil in study and to engage in psychological battle to overcome powerful instincts and emotions. Most of all a person must have the endurance to withstand setbacks and not be defeated by them. Rabbi Tarfon in 2:20 of Pirkei Avot says, “The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master of the house is insistent.” Our Patriarch and Matriarchs are our role models when the going gets tough.

What does God promise Yaakov? “All the nations of the world will bless themselves by you and your offspring.” Every human being, following the advice and ideas contained in Yaakov’s dream, vouched safe in the wisdom of his offspring, the Nation of Israel, through adherence to the Torah, can reach the same heights and closeness to God. When the other nations realize the correctness of this path, they will praise the Jewish religion. The prophet tells us, “We will be a light to the nations.” They too can climb the ladder.
May Hashem grant all of us the fortitude and strength to continue the climb up Yaakov’s ladder no matter the challenges we face in the climb. It is the only way for us to reach our full potential and attain a more meaningful relationship with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan