Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 28 November 2020 / 12 Kislev 5781

Behold! A Ladder of Lessons

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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On Yaakov’s way to Charan, he encounters “the place,” where he falls asleep for the night. He did not just chance upon any place. The verse describes an “encounter” — literally, he was struck by the place. This specific place fascinated and captivated him. Although he was deeply moved by the grandeur of the place, which was at the border of the land of his future, he nevertheless lay down and slept in this place.

In his sleep, he has a vision. In the textual description, the world “Behold!” appears three times, each time heralding a new lesson for Yaakov to learn. Behold! Yaakov envisions a ladder; a ladder which was “set up toward earth and whose top reached to heaven.” The ladder was not there by chance — it was deliberately set up from on high toward the earth. But the purpose of the ladder is not descent, but rather ascent — its top reached toward heaven. This is the first lesson of the ladder. Man’s destiny is not to be found below on earth, but should be sought from above. Everything earthly is meant to ascend to a lofty goal.

Behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending “against him.” He sees that man’s fate is not decided on earth, in the physical world. He sees that G-d’s messengers ascend the ladder and look at the ideal image of man as he should be, and then descend and compare the ideal image to the image of man as he actually is. By this standard, they then deal with him for good or for bad. The Midrash (Ber. Rabbah 68:12) explains that the angels ascended on high and found Yaakov’s image engraved as Israel glorifying G-d, but when they descended they found him sleeping — sleeping in the very place that was meant to awaken in him a higher awareness of his mission. The angels sought to harm him, but at once…

Behold! G-d stood beside him. While the angels see everything and every person strictly as they are and where they are, G-d stands by the person in His attribute of mercy. In this way, G-d not only sees the past and the present, but also sees and shapes the future, so that the kernel of good that lives in a person in potential is nurtured and developed.

Taken together the message of the ladder for Yaakov and all his descendants is this: Man was put on this earth with a higher purpose and he is constantly being measured and compared to the higher self of his potential. Yet, when he fails that higher calling, G-d stands beside him to preserve the good in him and enable him to develop and reach that potential.

  • Sources: Commentary, Ber. 28:12

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