A Ladder to Heaven

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

This week’s Parsha, Vayetze, brings us to a new phase in the life story of our third Patriarch, Yaakov. Hitherto he had been  entrenched in the study halls of Shem and Ever and was engrossed in learning by day and by night.

These heady days of perennial immersion in sublime religious and philosophical ideas had come to an end. Yaakov was reluctant to terminate this elevated form of existence  in which he was constantly in the presence of Hashem.

He did not depart from the Beit Midrash voluntarily but was compelled by circumstances. The unlikely cause was the (erroneous) decision of Yitzchak to confer the material blessings upon Eisav. This would have had tragic consequences for the future of the Jewish nation as Yitzchak himself understood when he realized that the recipient of his pronouncements was actually Yaakov.

Tragedy was avoided because Rivka, who disagreed with her husband’s evaluation of Eisav, carefully monitored his interactions with his older son. She therefore “heard” when Yitzchak instructed Eisav to go to the hunt and prepare for him a tasty dish. She convinced Yaakov to go along with her risky scheme to wrest the blessings from his unworthy brother.

Rivka’s gambit was successful but had dangerous, if unintended, consequences. Eisav could not abide the insult to his pride and silently vowed to seek revenge after the death of his father. Again it was Rivka who discovered this plan and took action to save her younger son. He would have to escape and find refuge in the home of her brother, Lavan. While there he could also seek to secure a fitting match for himself.

But this meant that Yaakov’s idyllic sojourn in the “Tents of Torah” would have to come to an end. Still, according to Rashi (Bereishit 28:9), Yaakov did not immediately flee to Padan Aram but hid in the house of Ever for another 14 years and only then tore himself away from the Beit Midrash which was his natural habitat.

Something significant occurred on the first night of his journey. He came upon a “certain place” and lodged there. Sleep, for Yaakov, was a rare luxury. Rashi (Bereishit 28:11) comments  “... in that place he slept but for the 14 years in which he “apprenticed” in the house of Ever, he did not sleep at night because he was immersed in Torah.”  He slumbered and was granted a divine vision.

He dreamed and “A ladder was planted on the ground whose top reached heaven, and the Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. And behold! Hashem was standing over him and He said ‘I am Hashem, G-d of Avraham your father and G-d of Yitzchak; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants.”

The Rambam explains the imagery of this prophetic vision in his Guide For The Perplexed. The angels represent the Prophets who obtain the highest level of knowledge of G-d and  communicate with Him. 

Says Rambam; “...How suggestive, too, is the expression ‘ascending and descending on it’! The ascent is mentioned before the descent, inasmuch as the ‘ascending’ and arriving at a certain height of the ladder precedes the ‘descending’ ie., the application of the knowledge acquired in the ascent for the training and instruction of mankind.”

There are 2 phases in the lives of the exalted individuals who merit to attain prophecy. First of all they must spend many years in isolation from society wholly engrossed in intense study and perfection of character. But  they have a second mission as well. This can be seen in the trajectory of our 3rd Patriarch.

Yaakov’s deceptive ‘theft” of the blessings was not undertaken to acquire  personal wealth. Instead he put his life at risk in order to protect Klal Yisrael from great potential harm. His life of exclusive study was approaching its end. When he finally left home it wasn’t just to escape from Eisav but to attain a wife and build a home as well.

The message of the dream was that he must now utilize the profound knowledge and understanding that Hashem had gifted him with to educate and elevate mankind. His particular role, in this regard, was to effectuate the transformation of the Abrahamic family into a national entity.

The message of “Jacob’s Ladder” applies to all of us. We have a great obligation to pursue and internalize the profound wisdom of Torah. This is a purely personal and selfish endeavor. But the story doesn’t conclude there. We must acknowledge our profound responsibility for the material and spiritual welfare of the Jewish People. Our love of Hashem and intense appreciation of the knowledge contained in His Torah should be so great that it compels us to share it with all people. It is only by an embrace of this “service of love” that one can be a genuine benefactor of Klal Yisrael. May we merit to achieve it.

Shabbat Shalom