RABBI REUVEN MANN
This week’s Parsha, Vayetze, depicts Yaakov’s exile from his parent’s home and his sojourn with his uncle Lavan. The Rabbis say “The actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.” Every event we have encountered in our long and often bitter historical journey was already experienced by the Avot who established the precedent for how to deal with them. The Jews are a people with great resiliency who are never crushed or defeated by adversity. Yaakov experienced the setbacks, disappointments and persecutions which were repeated against his descendants many times. However, Yaakov could not be defeated even by the superior might of his envious uncle. Lavan himself attested to Yaakov’s “special protection” when he said, “It is in my power to do you harm but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘beware lest you speak to Yaakov either good or bad.”
Lavan’s admission of weakness was a fulfillment of the promise Hashem had made to Yaakov in a prophecy conveyed to him in a dream. Yaakov saw a ladder which was planted in the earth and rose all the way to Heaven with the angels of Hashem rising and descending upon it. Many commentators have expounded on the significance of this dream. I would like to focus on the meaning of the ladder and the identity of the “angels of Hashem.” In my opinion the ladder represents the Torah and the unique system of Mitzvot it contains. We are physical beings “planted in the earth” which means we are heavily influenced by our material desires. We can, however, uplift ourselves and change our nature by developing our spiritual qualities. Each Mitzvah we perform with devotion and sincerity elevates us and brings us closer to Hashem who is “standing” at the top of the ladder. He is always there waiting to receive anyone who makes the effort to refine his character through Torah and Mitzvot.
This dream expresses the religious philosophy of Judaism which rejects the idea of “instantaneous conversion.” Many religions glorify the individual who in a moment of inspiration is “born again” and transformed from a sinner to a saint. Such a notion is contrary to Torah. Hashem has set out for us a roadmap which leads us, step by step, through the pathway of genuine spiritual attainment. Holiness cannot be achieved in a day. Every Mitzvah improves us by teaching a truth, instilling a virtue and restraining us from harmful speech and deeds. The Torah is a “tree of life for those who cling to it.” Hashem is at the top of the ladder and carefully guards the “angels” who ascend it to come close to Him and who then embrace the Jewish way of life. The eternal character of the Jewish people traces itself back to the prophetic vision of Yaakov. From “atop the ladder, Hashem promised him, ‘Behold I am with you and will guard you wherever you go and I will return you to this land for I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken about you.” It is our attachment to Hashem through observance of His commandments and our attempt to get close to Him through emulation of His ways that assure our survival and well-being through the dark nights and bright mornings of our unique historical journey.
The contemporary climate is antithetical to the values of Torah. Our society craves instant gratification in the religious as well as the secular realm. We want to gain a feeling of holiness without putting in the hard work that it requires. Judaism rejects the notion that “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Our rabbis teach, “The day is short and the work is long and the master of the house is demanding.” To reach the heights we muse climb the ladder with dedication and steadfastness, drawing ever closer to Hashem who extends a helping hand to those who seek Him in truth.