Parashat Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3
Sponsored by Marsha Swirsky and her loving family, in memory of Joel Michael Swirsky.
Sometimes we are busy looking towards our goal, be it material or spiritual; at other times we focus intently on what we've achieved.
Walk into any department store this time of year and you will be overwhelmed by the latest technological gizmo that is meant as a teaching tool for your children: toddlers to teens. Despite the fact that there are yearly lists of the "hottest" toys and games, there is nothing new under the sun. We didn't know it at the time, but the games we played as children were also meant to be instructional. My friends and I spent hours playing Chutes and Ladders. It was meant to help us learn to count from one to one hundred. What we didn't realize at the time was that it was also meant to teach us how to be decent human beings. If you landed on a square with a ladder, there was a picture of a child doing something good, and so you were rewarded by climbing up a few rows. Land on a square with a chute, illustrated with a child behaving inappropriately, and you slid down several rows.
Some of you might be more familiar with this game by a slightly different name: Snakes and Ladders. This is what the game was called when it was first introduced in Victorian England. The British brought it home from India. There it was a game to educate young Hindus. If you behaved well, you ascended to a higher level of life; inappropriate behaviour resulted in reincarnation on a lower level.
The ladder leading you to a higher state is found in many cultures, in which the ladder oftentimes symbolizes the path between our world and the godly abode. At first glance, this seems to be the case in Parashat VaYetze. After tricking his father into giving him the birthright, Jacob has run off, to escape his elder brother Esau's wrath. Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Genesis 28:10-12).
Ever since Jacob had this dream, his first vision, we have been trying to understand what it means. The sulam that leads to heaven is most often translated as ladder. You don't have to be a Led Zeppelin fan to come up with another translation: "stairway" to heaven. Nonetheless, sulam could also mean a ramp or a series of steps.
Of greater interest is the movement of the angels, who were going up and down on it. Why up and down, ask the commentators, why not down and up? Midrash Genesis Rabbah explains that the angels who were to accompany Jacob on his journey were descending while those who were remaining in the Promised Land were ascending. (Think of the term aliyah "going up" to the land of Israel.) A second midrash views the ladder as representing different kingdoms to which Israel would be exiled, and the divine figures represent the princes of these lands: Babylonia, Media, Greece and Rome.
Yet another midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 8:1) views God as being involved in construction. A Roman woman asks what God been up to since the six days of creation, Rabbi Jose ben Halafta answers that God has been building ladders for some people to ascend and others to descend. A Hassidic interpretation takes a different view entirely, focusing on the end of the verse ascending and descending on it (bo). Bo can also be taken to mean within it or within him. In this interpretation, the ascending and descending is dependent on humanity's prayers and actions. If a person behaves in a certain way, then the entire world is elevated, if not, the world is degraded. Or again, think of Chutes and Ladders.
The symbolism of the ladder is also found in the writings of Maimonides. While he had many philosophical interpretations of the meaning of Jacob's ladder (nicely summarized by Dr. Shaul Regev of Bar-Ilan University), I am thinking more of his simple eight rungs of tsedakah.
The relationship between our deeds and Jacob's "Stairway to Heaven" was picked up by Alan Morinis in his explanation of Mussar.
This appears to me as a good image for the spiritual life. Our feet touch the earth because we are undeniably human and should have no illusions that our spirituality will separate us from all beauty and suffering our humanity brings. But, without negating for an instant the realities of our humanness, each of us is endowed with the gift of spirit, so that we can climb the ladder of the soul to reach its heavenly heights.
"How holy is this place," says Jacob. "The Lord is here and I didn't realize. This is surely the gate of heaven."
Jacob wasn't referring to some special faraway place or an exalted shrine when he recognized that he was standing at the gate of heaven. It's right here, he said, in this totally unremarkable place, now that I realize it. When consciousness awakens to the realization that life is a journey of the soul, and embraces life just as it is, right here, then we discover that, right now, we ourselves are standing at the foot of Jacob's ladder. The steps are there before us, waiting to be climbed.Climbing Jacob's Ladder pp. 24-5
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps with the Hassidic symbolism in mind, views humanity itself as being the ladder:
Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward God which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe.Man's Quest for God, p. 7
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (aka the Kotzker Rebbe) also contemplated the sulam and arrives at a spiritual theory of relativity. He asked his students, who was higher on the ladder? The person at the top or the one at the bottom? The answer is not the obvious one - the person at the top. It depends on where one is going, on whether an individual is ascending or descending. The person at the top might seem higher, but if he is spiritually on the chute, he is actually lower than the person on the spiritual ladder.
If all this up-and-down has you dizzy, then sit back, relax and look at Genesis 28:13. While the divine messengers are busy ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob's dream, the Lord was standing beside him.
Sometimes we are busy looking towards our goal, be it material or spiritual; at other times we focus intently on what we've achieved. In both cases we forget about where we are, and more importantly, where we can find God. As we climb the ladder rung by rung, or even if we slip down the chute, God is standing next to us, always. The opportunity to experience holiness is not in the distant future, nor is it in the past. Rather, it is here at every moment. In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe: Where is God? Wherever God is allowed to enter.