by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder was implanted in the ground, and its
top reached into the heavens, and behold Angels of G-d were ascending and
descending upon it." [28:12]
Rav Avraham Zalmans interprets this verse homiletically, using it as a
parable to describe people as they strive to perfect themselves and their
He is hardly alone, of course, in using a parable of a ladder to define our
existence -- we must always work to go up, say our Sages, and if a person
merely tries to remain where he or she is, then gravity is going to act to
pull a person down. But Rav Zalmans, a leader in the Mussar (ethical
development) movement, derives three tremendous insights from this verse.
First of all, just as a ladder has many rungs which a person must use to
support himself, a person attempting to improve his or her character cannot
simply leap blindly. Everything comes in steps, in stages. One must learn
and use the rules of ethical behavior laid out in Jewish Law, and adopt
specific practices for improvement.
A person who simply says "I'm never going to gossip again!" will probably
fail within days, and may well give up on the attempt. But, especially
thanks to the Chofetz Chaim, we have today a shelf-full of books on the
laws of gossip, practical examples, lessons for guarding speech in everyday
life... you name it, Judaism has it. And thanks to the Chofetz Chaim
Heritage Foundation and others, we have
programs to adopt certain hours of the day for special care in this area.
These, say Rav Avraham Zalmans, are the rungs of the ladder. What fool
would ignore the rungs, and attempt to drag himself up the left-hand pole
of the ladder by his hands? And how far would he get?
Second, a ladder cannot stand unless it is leaning against a high place. A
person needs models, paragons of ethical conduct, and preferably people up
at the next stage of the ladder who are able to guide one upwards. A person
must not look down, or fear cat-calls from people below who would rather he
or she not strive for such things as good character (gossips love
company!). Instead, one needs to look up towards the top, relying upon the
ladder and the high place upon which it leans.
And finally, if a person encounters difficulties, if he or she slips back
or falls past a broken rung -- all is not lost. One must catch hold of the
next rung, and start moving again. This is normal. It is even the path of
those who are like Angels of G-d -- truly righteous people. They are not
perfect, standing at the top of the ladder. Rather, they go upwards, and
then they even go down a bit... and then they resume.
Too often, people try to achieve perfection overnight. It doesn't work that
way. It's a slow process, and slipping back is even a natural part of that.
The trick is to not be discouraged, to not give up, to not slide back down.
This is how we can rise above our current state, and reach our goals!