After Esav vowed to kill his brother Yaakov for having taken their father Yitzchak’s blessing, Rivka and Yitzchak both decided to send Yaakov to Rivka’s brother, Lavan, to escape Esav’s wrath, and to find a wife.
On the way to Lavan’s house, Yaakov passed the future site of the Holy Temple.
The verse informs us:
ספר בראשית פרק כח
(יא) וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
- He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set;
The Torah does not tell us where he stopped, merely indicating it as “the place.” How do we know that it was at the future site of the Holy Temple?
The word “המקום “- the place, was used once before, when Avraham Avinu took Yitzchak to the Akeida. The Torah tells us, “He (Avraham) saw the place from afar.” The Akeida took place on הר המוריה , Mount Moriah, the Temple’s future site. Hence, Yaakov’s “place” is that identical place, Mount Moriah.
Yaakov sensed a special holiness here. Being the place of the Akeida, where Avraham had previously prayed, Yaakov himself felt compelled to pray at this spot. What prayer did Yaakov say? The sun having set, the prayer had to be the evening prayer – מעריב . The Talmud derives from this that Yaakov instituted מעריב, the evening prayer.
When he finished praying, Yaakov laid down to sleep and had a dream, which the Torah describes.
ספר בראשית פרק כח
(יב) וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹקים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ:
- And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of God were ascending and descending on it:
What is the meaning of the ladder that Yaakov saw in his dream?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his commentary on the Torah explains that Hashem in heaven had set the ladder on earth to teach us that our goal on this earth is to go up from earth and reach the heavens. “Everything earthly is invited from above to work itself upwards to a heavenly high goal.” As Yaakov embarked on his mission to found the Jewish nation, this message needed to be firmly embedded in his mind.
We learn a number of lessons from this metaphor.
The process of growing and becoming closer to heaven must be a gradual one; like ascending a ladder, we must go step by step. If we try to skip a rung by jumping to the next one, we are likely to fall and lose everything.
Climbing a ladder requires that we take the rungs in order. Similarly, in our quest for spiritual growth and achievement, we must progress in a logical and systematic way. We start with the fundamentals and build on them, step by step. Jumping to the more esoteric or seemingly glamourous parts of Judaism will not build a wholesome, grounded Jew, and will not last.
A person may look to the top of the high ladder and become afraid to take the next step, thinking, “I can’t go so high! I am afraid of heights!”
I vividly remember one of my 10th grade students telling me, “Rabbi, I can see it all, but I just can’t see myself not checking my email on Shabbat.”
I said to him, “You know what you are like? You are like the person who said. ‘I don’t want to become a millionaire. Do you know why? Because people ask millionaires for tens of thousands of dollars for charity. I can’t afford that kind of money!’
“But, as a millionaire, you can afford that kind of money for charity. Don’t judge the future based on where you are now. Just take one step. That will bring you to the next step. And that’s fine. Then take one more. And before you know it, you will be at the step right before checking your email on Shabbat. At that point it will be the most natural choice you could make.”
This is also true for some of us. We are hesitant to take the next step because we are afraid of the 100th step down the road, for which we are now not ready. Remember, climbing a ladder requires just the next step, from which we progress to the next one. Ultimately, when we reach the 99th step, taking #100 will be the most natural thing that we could do. (We also want very much to take it, since that is the next phase of our journey to the top.)
At the ladder’s acme, when a person is closer to heaven, he may feel holier than those on the rungs beneath him. Our Sages wisely warn from adopting that attitude. Being on one of the higher rungs rather gives us the opportunity to look at those who are not quite as high to see what they need and how we can help them in their growth to reach where we are.
Using the ladder metaphor, we can elucidate the process of growth as Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) teaches us in his book מכתב מאליהו – Strive for Truth.
Accomplishment in this life requires hard work and focus. To master any discipline, one must overcome numerous challenges and obstacles. In every field, the masters of that field have excelled in overcoming all its challenges that sought to interfere with their goals.
The same is true of one’s growth as a Jew. Every step forward comes with a built-in opponent, the world’s evil force (Yetzer Harah), that wishes to disrupt our progress. This evil force manifests itself in the world’s many attractive pleasures that beckon us to indulge in them and forego the higher goal of fulfilling Hashem’s will. The Yetzer Harah presents us with a challenge, our job being to overcome it and receive the reward for doing so, our purpose in this world. Indeed, in every phase and stage of our lives, we come up against new challenges to overcome. And as we overcome each new obstacle, we advance to the next plateau in our growth, where we will meet our new contest, the next step in our climb heavenward.
We need to look at each rung in our ladder as a new test; the battlefield in our quest to advance up the ladder.
Rabbi Dessler explains that just as when we ascend a ladder we stand on only one rung at a time, similarly, in our growth in Judaism, we are faced with only one area of challenge at a time. That area is where my understanding of what I should do, my fear of heaven, is equal to the tendency to do what I am not supposed to do. That is the rung on which I am now standing and it represents my current level in Judaism. The rungs below me represent the commandments that I have already mastered that no longer challenge me, for example, do not kill and do not steal. The rungs above me represent challenges that I am not yet ready to conquer and that are out of my control, for example, not speaking one word of lashon hara – improper speech.
Let us say, for example, my weakness is my temper. I fly off the handle and blow up at my wife, my children and anyone else that annoys me. I know I must stop hurting people’s feelings with my temper tantrums. We’ll call this challenge rung 32 of my ladder, the battle ground where I have my current challenge.
A co-worker has an annoying habit. I know that it is inappropriate to explode and yell at him to stop; on the other hand, the annoyance has become intolerable and I feel that I have to do something. This is my test. I really want to blow up and give him a piece of my mind, but I know it is wrong. I should politely ask him to refrain from the annoying habit.
If I overcome the urge, I win the battle, and come one step closer to removing this negative trait from my personality. If I fail, I reinforce the negative trait, and will have to work harder next time to overcome it. I will have to win this battle many many times before I have completely removed this weakness from my persona, but this is what I must do to progress in my growth as a Jew.
When I have completely overcome this weakness, and never ever explode at anybody anymore, I will progress to rung 33 of my ladder. There I will find the next area of challenge, which will be more advanced than the previous one. Maybe now, I am ready to take on not speaking any lashon hara– improper speech.
There is another very important lesson in this metaphor. A person may say, “I can’t handle the challenge. I am just going to surrender and throw in the towel, and it will leave me alone.” This would be a grave mistake. The Yetzer Harah will never leave us alone. He is there to challenge us on every rung. We will never be without a test. Should we give up and throw in the towel, the effect will be to cede back some of the rungs that we have already climbed. Those formerly climbed rungs are still ahead of us on the ladder and are awaiting our renewed footsteps.
The growth process is fraught with obstacles, and part of the process is to fail and fall. There is no other way. Yet the falling is actually a help to the process. In a war to conquer territory, a back and forth often ensues until someone emerges victorious. This is how it goes in Judaism also. There are always ups and downs.
There is a different approach to the ladder metaphor. The ladder represents a human being, his feet planted firmly on the ground and his head in the heavens. Man is the combination of a body made from the earth and a soul which comes from heaven.
The verse in the Torah that describes the creation of man says:
ספר בראשית פרק ב
(ז) וַיִּיצֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה:
Genesis Chapter 2
- And Hashem God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being:
רש”י על בראשית פרק ב פסוק ז
ויפח באפיו – עשאו מן התחתונים ומן העליונים גוף מן התחתונים ונשמה מן העליונים. לפי שביום ראשון נבראו שמים וארץ. בשני ברא רקיע לעליונים. בשלישי תראה היבשה לתחתונים. ברביעי ברא מאורות לעליונים. בחמישי ישרצו המים לתחתונים. הוזקק בששי לבראות בו מעליונים ומתחתונים ואם לאו יש קנאה במעשה בראשית שיהיו אלו רבים על אלו בבריאת יום אחד (ב”ר פי”ד וע”ש יח):
Hashem made man from the lower realms and from the upper realms; the body from the lower realms and the soul from the upper realms. Because on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He created the sky for the upper realms, and on the third day He created the land for the lower realms. On the fourth day He created the lights for the upper realms, and on the fifth day He created the fish for the lower realms. On the six-day He needed to create something of the upper realms and the lower realms, for if He did not there would be an imbalance in nature.
We can derive an important concept from this. Man’s role in this world is to maintain the balance between the physical and spiritual. He does this by living an earthly life in a holy way, through doing the mitzvot, which require physical action, for a holy purpose.
The Torah way of life strikes the perfect balance between the lower realms and the upper realms.
We live in a world with advocates for both extremes. There are a vast number of people who live only to experience pleasure. They occupy their days with trying to experience the greatest amount of gratification possible. When they get bored of one, they look for another. This keeps life interesting and exciting. But what happens when they get older and those pleasures become more and more elusive? What do they have left?
On the other hand, there are those who say that we should not partake of earthy pleasures for they will prevent us from achieving our elevated spiritual goals. These people live celibate, deficient lives, and never experience the multitude of pleasures that Hashem has put on this world for us to enjoy. When they get older, they, too, realize that what could have been a rich, fulfilling life, was not.
The Torah says, I have put you here to live a most pleasurable life. Eat the most delicious foods (just make sure that they are kosher). Just, before you eat, recognize Hashem as your benefactor by making a blessing on the food, and then thank Him for His kindness by reciting the blessing afterwards. Because this morsel of food has brought you closer to Hashem, the food becomes elevated and holy, and, by eating it, so do you. By living a Torah life, you bring peace between the realms.
There is another very important way in which man connects heaven and earth, and that is through prayer.
All blessings come to earth from Hashem in heaven. Hashem has infinite blessing that He wants to bestow upon us, but unless we pray for them, He will not give them to us. Prayer is what activates the flow of blessing from heaven.
This is based on the following verse in the Torah.
ספר בראשית פרק ב
(ה) וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים עַל הָאָרֶץ וְאָדָם אַיִן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה:
- Now all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herbs of the field had not yet sprouted, for Hashem God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil:
רש”י על בראשית פרק ב פסוק ה
כשנגמרה בריאת העולם בששי קודם שנברא אדם וכל עשב השדה עדיין לא צמח ובג’ שכתוב ותוצא לא יצאו אלא על פתח הקרקע עמדו עד יום ו’ ולמה כי לא המטיר ומה טעם לא המטיר לפי שאדם אין לעבוד את האדמה ואין מכיר בטובתן של גשמים וכשבא אדם וידע שהם צורך לעולם התפלל עליהם וירדו וצמחו האילנות והדשאים:
When the world’s creation was completed on the sixth day (before man was created) no herb of the field had yet sprouted, and on the third day about which it is written, “and the earth brought forth vegetation,” the vegetation did not then emerge from the earth but remained just below the surface of the ground until the sixth day. Why? Because Hashem had not sent rain. And why didn’t He? Because there was no one to work the soil and no one who could recognize the rains’ goodness. When Adam came and realized that rains are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them and they came down; the trees and vegetation then sprouted.
The secret to activating heaven’s blessing is to realize that it comes from Hashem and to ask Him for it.
But why? If Hashem knows what we need and He wants to give it to us, why doesn’t He just do so?
The answer is that the very best thing for us is to have a close, loving relationship with Hashem. This is the secret to a happy, meaningful life. We create this relationship by recognizing and acknowledging all the goodness that Hashem bestows upon us in spite of how undeserving we are. Thinking about this for just a few minutes should inspire us to thank Hashem for His overwhelming kindness to us, and we should naturally want to reciprocate by doing His will, viz, the Torah and mitzvot, which are really the very best thing for us!
Through the process of prayer, moreover, which connects us to Hashem, we elevate ourselves and become more worthy of the blessing.
“What about all the people who don’t pray?” you may ask, “How are they the recipients of blessing?”
The answer is that the holy and righteous people bring forth blessing for all people.
The Talmud says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/ב
דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב בכל יום ויום בת קול יוצאת מהר חורב ואומרת כל העולם כולו נזונין בשביל חנינא בני וחנינא בני די לו בקב חרובין מערב שבת לערב שבת
Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Every day a heavenly voice proclaims: “The whole world receives its sustenance in the merit of Rabbi Chaninah Ben Dosa my son, but he lives on a quart of carob per week.”
This is one reason we pray daily for the health and welfare of the holy and righteous people. They provide protection and blessing to the whole world.