Jacob and the Ladder


Moshe Ben-Chaim




Parshas Vayetze commences with Jacob arriving at a “place”, taking a stone of that “place”, and making a head shelter with it, and finally sleeping at that “place”. Why the repetition? Why do we need to know how Jacob camped, taking a stone to create a shelter?

He then has the famous dream of a ladder mounted on the ground with its top in the heavens, with God’s angels ascending and descending upon it. God stands “above” it. God informs Jacob that He is the God of Abraham and Isaac, and the land upon which he lays will be his and his children’s. His seed will flourish. Then God says He will watch him wherever he travels and He will return him to this land.

Jacob awakes at night, and is awed, “Certainly God is in this “place” and I did not know this. How awesome is this “place”: this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” Jacob says.

Jacob arises in the morning and takes “the” stone he used as shelter, and set it up as a monument and anointed it with oil. He then renames that “place” Bias Ayle, (house of God). Jacob then swears that as God watches over him in his travels and that He attends to his physical needs, he will surely give a tenth back to God.


Why must God insure Jacob, and not others, that he will watch him in his travels?

Why is Jacob surprised, saying, “Certainly God is in this “place” and I did not know this”? Jacob repeats the words, “How awesome is this “place!” Why must we be told this?

Why does he take that specific stone and make it into a monument to God’s honor? What is the purpose of a monument?

Why does he rename the place to Bais Ayle?

Why does he make this swear?

Finally, what is the message of this amazing dream?



On the words “God is certainly in this place”, Abraham son of Maimonides writes as follows:

“There is here a fine principle. That is, for it is known and clear that He, praised be He, is not a body and has no relationship to a place. However, even as this is so, He, praised be He, isolates certain places for honor. No man understands this principle, except for those to whom He, praised be He, reveals it. As He stated to Moses, ‘Remove you shoes from your feet, for the place you stand is holy ground.’ This is to say that this place is isolated for honor.”

Ibn Ezra too writes on the words “God is certainly in this place” as follows:

 “The reason is on account that places are found where miracles are seen. But I cannot explain why this is, for it is a wondrous principle.”


When we read such statements from great minds like Maimonides’ son and Ibn Ezra, who are we to suggest explanations for what Ibn Ezra calls a “wondrous principle?” We cannot say we know what he means, as he clearly did not disclose any path through which we might unravel his words, but primarily because God did not reveal it to us. Abraham, Maimonides’ son describes the impossibility of our bodiless God to relate to space. And he also says “No man understands this principle, except for those to whom He, praised be He, reveals it.” He emphasizes his lesson, commenting on “and I did not know”, saying, “this idea cannot be known unless through God revealing it.” In other words, this idea is not something which man can arrive at through reasoning. Jacob thereby expressed this problem.

Similarly, we see that God says concerning His planned destruction of Sodom, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I will do?” God teaches us here that without His communication, Abraham would be missing an idea: an idea that is impossible for a human to uncover without prophecy. However, there, God does in fact reveal to Abraham and to us, what that principle was.[1]


But what about here: are we closed off completely from venturing into all parts of this matter? It is clear that God intends to share some ideas here with mankind, as He did record certain statements about this event in His Torah, given to all mankind, and to all generations.


Maimonides’ son Abraham does say, “for it is known and clear that He, praised be He, is not a body and has no relationship to location. However, even as this is so, He, praised be He, isolates certain places for honor.” Perhaps this is what Jacob found perplexing: the idea that God relates to “place.” For this appears as a contradiction to all we know about our bodiless God who does not relate to place. The fact that God did relate to a certain place regarding Moses and here regarding Jacob, is a “wondrous principle” which seems to somewhat oppose the Torah fundamental of God’s incorporeality.


Although we do not know this principle, we can at least, appreciate the problem of God isolating certain “places” for honor. And we must stress that is only for His “honor”, and nothing to do with God essentially, Whose essence is unknowable. Our Kedusha too emphasizes “Milo kol haarezt kovodo”, “The entire Earth is filled with His honor”. (If this is so, that the “entire” Earth is filled with His honor, how are certain places distinguished? I do not know.)


Perhaps as well, this is the reason for the Torah’s numerous repetitions of that word “place”. We are being directed to the very issue. Jacob is certainly astonished at this idea.

Making a monument of the very stone that at first Jacob used as shelter, Jacob thereby declares some new principle about “place” as it relates to God’s honor. Therefore, the mention of that stone at the beginning and end of this account, is essential for teaching how Jacob at first related to “place” in one fashion, but ultimately realized a new fundamental, and expressed this idea by taking that very stone and anointing it…and distinguishing that place. He also renames that place for this reason.



The Ladder

God standing “above” the ladder indicates that He is not “on” the ladder. The ladder represents the relationship between God and His creation. But that relationship is via angels…not through Him directly. He stands “above” or “outside” that relationship. God cannot relate directly to physical matter. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Chait once taught in Ibn Ezra’s name that the necessity for angels is just that: vehicles (angels or agents) through which God relates to the physical world. This corroborates Maimonides’ son Abraham’s commentary. Ibn Ezra also teaches that “Matters of below (on Earth) depend on what is on high; as if a ladder is between them (Gen. 28:12).”  This teaches a second idea: that the physical universe is subordinate to the world of the metaphysical. Proof of this is that God created the physical universe (a metaphysical Being created the physical world) and that He also alters natural law.

Therefore, the ladder offers two lessons: 1) that a relationship exists between God and His creation, and that relationship is only via angels, not directly connected to Him, Who does not relate to the physical world. Only physical objects can relate to the physical world. 2) The physical world is subordinate to the metaphysical world.


Why is Jacob – as opposed to any other – being taught these lessons? What is the necessity for man, that God distinguishes certain places for His honor? As the Rabbis taught above, unless God tells us, this is a matter that will remain unknown to us, as it appears to contradict God’s metaphysical nature. Through Jacob’s astonishment we learn that it is surprising that God selects a location for His honor. Nonetheless, this account reiterates what we do know as true: God is not physical. A Torah fundamental.

[1] The idea is, I believe, that God will allow those deserving of death to live, although justice demands their death. God allows this, as He intimated to Abraham, since there are sufficient righteous people who might improve the wicked. But such an idea, man cannot recognize through his own mind. That is why God says, “Will I keep concealed from Abraham…?” Man – without God’s providential education – will not arrive at this reality of God’s generosity, but he will assume that those deserving of death meet with death. No exceptions.