Rabbi Label Lam
What’s a Meta-phor?
And he dreamt, and behold a ladder was standing towards the earth and its
head was striving towards the heavens and angels of Elokim were going up
and down on it. And behold Hashem is standing upon it… (Bereishis 28:12-13)
Why was Jacob given a picture of a ladder as a parting vision, before
marching off to a prolonged exile? How does that ladder offer comfort,
consolation, or guidance to the beholders of the vision?
There are many important ideas buried in the metaphor of the ladder as
described in the dream.
1)There are rungs on a ladder indicating that there is a reasonable
program for reaching even the loftiest goals.
2)The climber needs to know where he is at any moment maintaining a
healthy tension between the “is” and the “ought”, striving for the next
3)The ladder connects two points, in this case heaven and earth.
There is a continuum between the physical and spiritual realm, between the
temporal and the eternal.
4)All is supervised by and emanates from The Primary Source standing
firm on the top of the ladder. Everything else is in flux and is uncertain.
5)Angels going up first and then down on the ladder show that what
we do here impacts and reverberates in worlds above and ripples directly to
the earth below.
6)We see the ladder has traffic going either up or down but not
standing still. Life is not a snap shot. It’s a moving picture. If one is
not growing or climbing then by definition he is shrinking or falling.
7)Moving upward requires energy to overcome gravity. The natural
tendency is to fall down. If a bird stops flapping its wings it does not
remain in the same place.
8)One can measure on a ladder how far he has traveled and how far he
has yet to go, gaining some encouragement while remaining humbled by the
enormity of the task ahead.
9)The ladder itself is rooted neither on this earth nor planted
firmly above. It is model of a bridge between worlds. This stands in
contradistinction to the Tower of Babel whose builders sought to put the
head of the tower permanently in the heavens while planting the building
firmly on the earth. The ladder is a vehicle and cannot be
institutionalized or idolized as an end in itself, disassociated from the
10)Yakov’s ladder is a vertical orientation. Free will is an “up” or
“down” choice, moving closer to or further from The Almighty. When the
conversation is about “left” or “right” then the field of choices we
entertain are on a horizontal plane and we have somehow lost our center of
11)We see that some from above are falling down and others from below
are striving upward. Traffic is moving in both directions. It matters less
where we start on the ladder and more in which direction we are currently
12)The ladder reaches to the highest place. Everyone is encouraged to
go to his or her highest station. The Arizal says that what knocks a
person out of this world ultimately is a vision of one’s true potential.
A friend of mine who got into health food years before it was popular sat
in the Yeshiva dining room mixing his green health-shake while others were
layering white toast with cholesterol dense butter and drinking
caffeine-packed coffee. Some strong specimen leaned over to my friend and
asked him point blank, “Do you think with all that health food you’re
healthier than we are?” My friend answered cleverly, “No! But I’m a lot
healthier than I used to be! Climbing the ladder makes us holier than we
used to be or better than we would have been had we not striven with our
own unique abilities and circumstances.
Yakov’s ladder is not just an abstract idea; a vague dream but rather a
profound visual tool for gaining and maintaining a powerful and enduring
focus. After all what’s a meta-phor?
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.