Rabbi David Walk
This year I'm teaching a class on Jewish symbols. I hope the participants are enjoying this subject as much as I am. This venture, which includes forays into Jewish art as well as history and mysticism, is relevant this week, because we encounter, perhaps, the most powerful image in our Bible, namely Jacob's Ladder. There are so many renditions of this motif, that it's hard to single one out, but I have my favorite. Shalom of Safed (1890-1980) painted such a clear and powerful version of this theme, that I can't think about his story without picturing his adaptation. The descending angels are facing us and almost coming out of the painting to us, while the ascending angels are departing showing us their backs. I think it's time to revisit this incident, and see what this powerful symbol suggests to us this year.
There are so many approaches to describe the significance of the Ladder, that it's hard to focus on just one. In the Midrash Raba there is a fascinating argument over whether the ladder represents the altar in the
According to the Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed: "And, behold, the Lord stood erect on it (Genesis 28:13)," that is, was stably and constantly up on it--I mean upon the ladder, one end of which is in heaven, while the other end is upon the earth. Everyone who ascends does so climbing up this ladder, so that he necessarily apprehends Him who is upon it, as He is stably and permanently at the top of the ladder. It is clear that what I say here of Him conforms to the parable propounded. For "the angels of God" are the prophets with reference to whom it is clearly said: "And He sent an angel (Numbers 20:16, Guide Book I, Chapter 15)." So, the ladder is a connector between the spiritual realm and this world, while the word mal'achim in the verse can be translated as angels or messengers. Maimonides describes them as God's messengers or prophets, not celestial beings
Let's take this viewpoint one step further. According to Reb Shneur Zalman of Liady (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1745-1812), it's our prayers which ascend and descend. These thoughts and aspirations are the agents going back and forth between us and God. He says: Therefore, one must begin from the bottom and work upwards in prayer, which is a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching towards heaven, until it reaches the One. Thereby the angels of God ascend and descend (olim ve-yordim) bo--in man. According to the Rebbe every human is their own ladder. And this explains why the messages go up before they come down because the communication starts with us. We initiate the holy connection by praying. Hopefully we spend our lives trying to ascend this spiritual scale getting ever closer to God.
Reb Chaim Volozhin (greatest student of the Vilna Gaon, 1749-1821) in his signature work, Nefesh Hachaim (Soul of Life), also addressed the issue of the ladder. He explains that the ladder isn't set in the ground, but towards the earth (Hebrew: artzah). In other words the ladder's anchor or base is in heaven, and represents heavenly material being directed in the earth's direction. Reb Chaim portrays the ladder image as a connector between the source of our souls or neshamot in heaven with the life spirit or nefesh which animates our bodies down here. The mystical term for this connector is spirit or ruach. This clarification goes a long way towards clearing up the use of these three terms. Reb Chaim also uses this motif to elucidate a major idea of his, that we are the conduit through which divine presence and influence enters this realm. We control the flow of spiritual material on this stairway between heaven and earth. Ya'akov is being taught that Godliness exists in this world to the extent that we motivate it. Since it's our thoughts, words and actions which jump start this flow, the verse describes the messengers as first ascending and only then descending in response to our initiative.
Reb Shneur Zalman describes a process of ascent, elevating our pleas heavenward. Reb Chaim, on the other hand, portrays a system of drawing divine power and influence down into our world. I would like to think that they're both right. Our efforts to reach beyond our physical limitations towards our heavenly source, penetrates the permeable membrane between the realms. This allows some of the celestial stuff to enter our lives and our world.
This idea is so significant to me, because prayer is so very difficult that grabbing onto images like this can make the effort a bit easier. For successful prayer, I believe that we have to feel the tension of lifting ourselves upwards, while bringing a little of heaven down here. Meditating or focusing on this powerful image of the Ladder as a bridge linking the two realms across the immense void may help in the endeavor to communicate with the supernal.
Ultimately, we must be motivated by the knowledge that God's promise to our beloved ancestor, 'I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go' applies to us in our struggle to fulfill this task of bringing sanctity into the world around us. When it comes to spiritual ascent, we can't be afraid of heights.
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