The Ladder to Heaven

Three Hasidic interpretations of the ladder in Jacob's dream shed light on humanity's relationship with God.


This week's Torah portion begins with one of the most famous visions in the Bible. Fearing for his life, Jacob leaves Be'er-Sheva and heads toward his mother's family in Haran. Along the way, and nowhere in particular, he stops for the night and goes to sleep.

While sleeping, Jacob has a powerful dream, filled with both sight and sound. First, he sees a ladder, or ramp (in Hebrew,


), that is planted on earth but reaches all the way to heaven. As Jacob watches, angels, or messengers of God, go up and down the ladder.

Jacob then hears God, who is "standing beside him," make a declaration of commitment to the covenant. The God of Jacob's fathers will be with him as He was with them; God will grant Jacob the Promised Land and abundant descendants to inhabit it and will protect him wherever he goes. However lonely and afraid Jacob now feels--his own brother seeks to kill him, and he is alone in the darkness, with only a stone for a pillow--God assures him that he need not fear, because God's protective presence will not waver and God's promise of a robust future will not go unfulfilled.

God's words are clear and speak for themselves, but Jacob's vision is much more ambiguous and begs for interpretation: What is the meaning of the ladder, and what is Jacob supposed to learn from it? Who are these angel-messengers, and what does their vertical movement signify?

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (the "Kedushat Levi"), one of the greatest of the Hasidic masters, offers a daring reading of Jacob's vision. He suggests that the ladder is intended to represent human beings in this world. Like the ladder, each of us is firmly planted on earth--we are corporeal beings with bodily needs and earthly desires. But through religious practice and striving, we are capable of "reaching upward"--presumably through entering into intellectual and emotional relationship with God, doing God's will, and becoming the kind of Jew and human being God asks for.

But our text goes much further than merely telling us that we can live on earth and still touch heaven. According to Levi Yitzhak, the ascent-descent of the angels suggests that the heavens themselves are affected by our actions.

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