Posted on November 28, 2014 by Geo Poor
In Parshat Vayetze, Jacob has a dream about a ladder, some angels, and God. The common interpretation is that the angels are traveling up and down the ladder, but the Hebrew is actually rather vague. When it says “bo,” the direct object can be the ladder, but it can also be interpreted to mean that the angels travel up and down “on him” (Jacob), that they are traveling “against him” in an adversarial manner, or even that they are traveling “because of him”. Many different commentators have different understandings, and I would like to look at a few to see what this dream can teach us.
The text says that the ladder is placed earthward, and its head arrives heavenward. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev writes that the ladder is like man: it starts on Earth, but can arrive in Heaven. Based on one’s actions, a person can either remain “Earthward,” that is to say bound to only the physical realm of day to day concerns, or he or she can send his or her head “Heavenward” to experience the spiritual realm and the Divine. Anyone’s spiritual practice and deeds in life are the chariots (merkavot) through which one can arrive Above. This ladder is about the individual’s spiritual journey towards Heaven.
The Zohar also interprets the ladder as having its primary relationship as with humans as opposed to with angels. This Kabbalistic text translates “bo” as “because of him,” and it further expounds that indeed “all depends on this ladder.” What does this mean? That Jacob’s deeds actually cause the ladder to move closer or further away from Earth. As he is later renamed “Israel,” this ability — the ability to control the distance between Heaven and Earth — is understood to be ours as well. I would, in a more modern reading, like to posit that this means all peoples, not just the Jews. The actions that we take here on Earth do not only bring our individual selves more Heavenward, but they actually shift the whole relational space between humans and God (civyachol [if it could be said]!) This ladder is about humankind’s spiritual journey towards Heaven.
The Talmud, in a passage that has seemingly nothing to do with the ladder, gives a good link between the above two ideas. In a fantastical journey, a Rabbi is told by the ghost of his father that “the above and the below is ours, while the middle is for the orphans.” In my interpretation here, the Above is Heaven, the Below is some other spiritual realm that the dead may inhabit (a topic that we do not need to delve into here), and the middle is Earth. Therefore, in Jacob’s dream, the Earth is “the underworld,” Heaven is still Heaven, and Jacob’s ladder actually represents Earth. So the other worlds belong to the spiritual beings (the dead, angels, God), a statement that is easy to understand and support, but what is the meaning of the word “orphan”? If Jacob, whose father is still alive, has the ability to control the relationship with Heaven, then in order for my interpretation to work, shouldn’t this passage say “the middle is for you”? [Turns out the answer is, “No, because that’s not the point of that Talmudic passage!”]
A few lines later, we find the key. God says to Jacob, “I am YHVH, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac.” But Jacob’s father is Isaac, while Abraham is his grandfather! By renaming Jacob as the son of Abraham, who is deceased, God is calling Jacob an orphan. The middle, which is the Earth, which is represented by the ladder, belongs to the orphans, one of whom is Jacob, who represents all of humanity. The ladder is about humankind’s spiritual journey to bring the Divine down to Earth.
As opposed to the previous two interpretations, in which the goal is to go from bottom through middle to top, this interpretation is about occupying the middle and not striving to arrive at either the bottom or the top. However, this interpretation does not tell us to engage only in the physical, rather when combined with the first two interpretations, gives us a model for how we should live our lives. We should be concerned with the here and now and not worrying about quests for reaching Heaven. But since our actions bring Heaven closer or farther, we should perform good deeds, and work to bring Heaven and God closer to us. Indeed, if our actions are the cause of either the presence or absence of Godliness in the world, the fate of the world does depend on the ladder as the Zohar says.
May we all consider our words and actions in this coming this week to ensure that they shorten the gap between us and Heaven and bring a little more Godliness into the world.