Parshat Vayetzeh תשפא
Esav has vowed to kill Yaakov for having stolen his blessing from Yitzchak , so Rivka and Yitzchak decided to send Yaakov to Rivka’s brother Lavan, to escape Esav, and also, to find a wife. As Yaakov was travelling to Lavan’s house, he passed the future site of the Holy Temple.
The verse says (Genesis 28:11):
(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 detail for us where this was. It just says, “the place.” How do we know it was the future site of the Holy Temple?
The word “המקום“- the place, was used once before with Avraham Avinu when he was taking Yitzchak to the Akeida. The Torah tells us that “he (Avraham) saw the place from the distance.” The Akeida took place on הר המוריה– Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. From this we learn that the place referred to here with Yaakov was the very same place, Mount Moriah.
As Yaakov was travelling, he sensed a special holiness there. Being the place of the Akeida, and the place where Avraham had previously prayed, Yaakov himself felt compelled to pray in this spot. What prayer did Yaakov say? Since the sun had set, it had to be the evening prayer, מעריב . We learn from this that Yaakov instituted מעריב, (Maariv) – the evening prayer.
After Yaakov finished praying, he settled down to go to sleep. As Yaakov slept in this holy place, he had a dream.
The Torah describes his dream.
יב) וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים 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.
There are a number of lessons we can learn from this metaphor.
The process of growing closer to Hashem must be a gradual one, like ascending a ladder. We must proceed consistently step by step in the proper direction, and in the proper sequence. If we go backwards or stop climbing, we will never reach our destination. If we try to skip over a rung by jumping to the next one, we are likely to fall and lose everything.
Going up a ladder requires that we take the rungs in order. There is no way to do them out of order. Similarly, in our quest upwards, we must progress in a logical and systematic way. We must start with the fundamentals and build on them step by step. Jumping to the more esoteric or glamourous parts of Judaism, will not build a wholesome, grounded Jew, and will not last.
A person may look at the top of the ladder so high, and become afraid to take the next step, thinking, “I can’t go so high, I’m afraid!”
I vividly remember one of my 10th grade students telling me, “Rabbi, I can see it all, but I just can’t see myself ever wearing one of those black hats.”
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, you know why? Because when a person is a millionaire, people ask him for tens of thousands of dollars for charity. I can’t afford that kind of money!’ But when you are a millionaire, you can afford that kind of money for charity, so why decide the future based on where you are now. All you need to do right now is take the very next step. That will bring you to the next and the next, and before you know it you will be at the step right before the black hat. At that point it will be the most natural choice you could make.” P.S. He wears a black hat.
This is true for some of us too. We are afraid to take the next step because we are afraid of the 100th step down the road, which we are not ready for now. Climbing a ladder requires us only to take the very next step. From there we progress to the next one until, ultimately, when we reach the 99th step taking the very next one will be the most natural thing to do. And, we will want very much to take it, since that is the next phase of our journey to the top.
When a person is at the top of the ladder, and coming closer and closer to Hashem, he may feel holier than those on the rungs beneath him. Our sages teach us that even when one is on one of the higher rungs, he must not look down on those below who are in their journey where he was not long ago. It is a process, and there are no shortcuts. One must step on every step to get to the next one. Additionally, having negotiated those rungs puts him in a position to help others go forward. He should see what they need, and how he can help them in their growth to get to where he is.
Utilizing the metaphor of the ladder we can elucidate the process of growth as Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) in his book ( א’ 113) מכתב מאליהו – Strive for Truth, teaches us.
Accomplishment in this life requires hard work and tenacity to overcome the numerous challenges and obstacles that stand in the way. Musicians must spend hours daily, practicing, and athletes must constantly work out to keep themselves in perfect shape. In every field, the masters of that field have put forth the immense effort necessary to overcome the challenges that confronted them and sought to interfere with their goals.
The same is true of one’s growth as a Jew. Every step forward that we wish to take, comes with a built in opponent, the evil force in the world, that wishes to disrupt our progress. This evil force manifests itself in laziness- the comfortable desire to do nothing, or in the many attractive pleasures of the world that beckon us to indulge in them, instead of foregoing that pleasure for the higher goal of fulfilling Hashem’s will. The counterforce is there to present us with a challenge so we are worthy of reward for overcoming it, our purpose for being in this world. In every phase and stage of our lives, we come up against new challenges to overcome. As we overcome each new obstacle, we advance to the next plateau in our growth. There, we will meet our new contest, the next step in our journey to the top.
The ladder represents the path to higher levels, and each rung represents a new battle zone to be conquered in my growth as a Jew. As I conquer each rung, I get closer to Hashem. The rung that I stand on now, represents my current level in Judaism. The rungs below me, are the commandments that I have already mastered and do not challenge me anymore; for example, do not kill or do not steal. The rungs above me represent challenges that I am not ready for yet, and are out of my control; for example, not speaking one word of lashon hara – evil speech.
Rabbi Dessler explains that just as when we ascend a ladder, we can stand on only one rung at a time, similarly, in our growth in Judaism, we are faced with only one challenge at a time. Let us say I am on rung 31 of my ladder, which means these are the tests I have passed and mastered, and I am battling with the evil force to conquer rung 32 – my current test. This is the point where my understanding of what is proper and correct to do, is equal to the physical desire of what I am not supposed to do. Let’s use the example of a co-worker with a habit that annoys you. You know it is inappropriate to explode and yell at him to stop, but on the other hand, you are really annoyed and feel like doing it. It is very tempting to once and for all, just give the guy a piece of your mind! If you overcome the urge, you win the battle, and take over rung 32, making rung 33 the new battle field. Rung 32 has now become unchallenged territory for you. But, if you lose the battle, rung 32 will become the unchallenged domain of the evil force, and you will retreat to rung 30, making rung 31 the new battle field. It often takes many successful decisions to completely vanquish and fully overcome the negative inclination, and sometimes the battle goes back and forth, but with strategy and persistence you will ultimately win the battle. One of the important strategies is prayer to Hashem to help you in your battle. We are all dependent on Him for help.
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 go to a lower level where there is no challenge. Then, I will be free of him!” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The evil force will never leave a person alone. One will never be without a test, and the evil force is there to create a challenge on every level. In giving up on that battle all one did was retreat to a lower level which will refresh that test again. He will have to reconquer that territory again in order to reach the point he was at before.
The process of growth in Judaism is fraught with obstacles, and part of the process is to fail and fall. There is no other way. One should never become discouraged and give up because he has lost a battle. On the contrary, he should pick himself up, dust himself off, and get right back into the ring. A favorite tactic of the evil force is to make a person feel he is no good and not worthy of growth. Understanding that it is par for the course allows us not to become discouraged.
There is a different approach to the metaphor of the ladder. The ladder represents a human being, with 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.
On the verse in the Torah which describes the creation of man it says (Genesis 2:7):
(ז) וַיִּיצֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה:
- 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 worlds. He does this by living an earthly life in a holy way, through doing the mitzvot which require physical action, for a holy purpose.
There is another very important way in which man maintains the balance between heaven and earth, and that is through prayer. All blessings come to earth from Hashem in heaven. But unless we pray for it, Hashem will not give it to us. Man serves as the link between the heavens and the earth.
You may ask, “What about all the people who don’t pray? How are they the recipients of blessing?” The answer is the holy and righteous people bring blessing for all people.
The Talmud says (Berachot 17b):
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 ופליגא
Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Every day a heavenly voice proclaims: “The whole world receives their sustenance in the merit of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa my son, but he lives on a quart of carob per week.”
When we climb the ladder of growth in Torah and mitzvot, we also have a positive influence on others; firstly by becoming better people, and secondly by showing them that growth is possible and necessary in this world. After all, this is what we were placed here to accomplish.