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 available rung.
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 true goal.
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 self.
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 going.
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?