The Ladder That Connects Us to Hashem
Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shmuel David ben Moshe Halevy, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, the refuah shlaimah of Yosef Shmuel ben Miriam, Devorah bat Chana, and Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel.
And he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold! A ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, the L-rd was standing over him… (Sefer Bereishit 28:12-13, this and all Bible and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
Jacob’s ladder is a symbol that has captured the world’s hearts and minds. By way of illustration, a quick search on Google.com reveals over 300,000 webpages wherein the expression “Jacob’s ladder” can be found. What, however, is the Torah communicating when it teaches us that Yaakov’s prophetic dream contained the fascinating image of “a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it?”
Rather than attempting to explain the symbol of the ladder per se, both Rashi (1040-1105) and the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) analyzed the phrase, “angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it.” Rashi, based upon Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 68:12, explains why the angels were first ascending and then descending: “The angels who escorted him in the [Holy] Land do not go outside the Land, and they ascended to heaven, and the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to escort him.” In sum, Rashi notes the place specificity of a nation’s angels and opines that angels of Eretz Yisrael have hegemony solely within their geographic boundaries, just as the angels outside the Promised Land hold sway in their regions.
Nachmanides’ focus is more universal in nature and emphasizes the completely nonautonomous nature of angels:
G-d showed him [Yaakov], via a prophetic dream, that the angels perform all actions that take place in the world, and everything is a result of the divine decree that is upon them (v’hakol b’gezerat elyon aleihem). This is the case, since the angels that G-d sends to walk about the earth will not do anything either small or large until they return and stand before the Master of the World and declare that they have traversed the world and it is [either] in a state of tranquility or filled with the sword and blood. And He then commands them to return and descend to the world and perform His will (divaro). (All translation and brackets my own)
The Ramban continues his explication of the text, highlighting one of his most frequently found exegetical themes: the unique relationship that obtains between Hashem and Yaakov (i.e. the Jewish people):
G-d showed him that He [alone,] may He be blessed, stands upon the ladder. [Moreover,] He declared a great promise to him, and proclaimed that he, [Yaakov,] would not be controlled by the angels (lo yihi b’yad hamalacichim), rather, he would forevermore be Hashem’s portion [i.e. under Hashem’s direct control] and G-d will be with him throughout all eternity. As the text states: “And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go…” (Sefer Bereishit 28:15). This is the case, since Yaakov’s status was different in kind and degree from the other Tzadikim (righteous ones); as the text states in regard to all other Tzadikim: “For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.” (Sefer Tehillim 91:11)
The Ramban’s overall message is clear: Yaakov, and by extension the entire Jewish people, are tachat kanfei HaShechinah (directly under Hashem’s protection and authority), whereas, all other nations of the world are controlled by the Almighty’s angels.
The Kabbalistic text, Tikunei Zohar (section 45), takes a different approach from that of Rashi and the Ramban, and focuses directly upon the symbolic meaning of the “ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven.” According to this work, the ladder is a metaphor for prayer (“sulam da tzaluta”). The second Bobover Rebbe, HaRav Ben-Zion Halberstam zatzal (1874-1941), known as the “Kedushat Tzion” after the name of his Torah commentary, quotes the Tikunei Zohar and comments that all of the mystical texts (kol sifrei chachmei haemet) concur with its interpretation of Jacob’s ladder. His explanation as to why this is the case gives us a new and deeper understanding of the power and meaning of tefilah (prayer):
For all of our efforts regarding the devotion of our heart [to G-d] constitute tefilah. Its goal and purpose is to connect the heavens and the earth into one dwelling place (mishkan). This is the case, since tefilah etymologically is an expression of “joining.” It is a derivative of the verse, “[With] divine bonds (naftulei Elokim) I have been joined (niftalti) to my sister” (Sefer Bereishit 30:8).
The Kedushat Tzion continues his analysis, stressing the unparalleled role of tefilah as the vehicle of communication between man and G-d:
For the individual who prays stands upon the earth and his prayer ascends to the highest heights and creates a crown for the King of Kings – the Holy One blessed be He. This, then, is [the connotation] of “a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven.” (Translation and brackets my own)
Fascinatingly, for Rav Halberstam zatzal, each one of us can serve as a kohane l’Hashem (a priest to G-d) in much the same way that the Kohanim bless the Jewish people. In other words, just as the Kohanim serve as the vehicle whereby Hashem’s blessing is brought to this world, our tefilah, so to speak, has the potential to “ascend to the highest heights and create a crown for the King of Kings – the Holy One blessed be He.” With the Almighty’s help, and our most heartfelt devotion, may this be so. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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