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 mostfamous visions in the Bible. Fearing for his life,Jacob leaves Be'er-Sheva and heads toward hismother's family in Haran. Along the way, and nowherein particular, he stops for the night and goes tosleep.

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

Sulam

), that is planted on earth butreaches all the way to heaven. As Jacobwatches, angels, or messengers of God, go up and down theladder.

Jacob then hears God, who is "standing besidehim," make a declaration of commitment to thecovenant. The God of Jacob's fathers will be with himas He was with them; God will grant Jacob the Promised Landand abundant descendants to inhabit it and willprotect him wherever he goes. However lonely andafraid Jacob now feels--his own brother seeks to killhim, and he is alone in the darkness, with only a stonefor a pillow--God assures him that he need not fear, because God's protective presence will not waver andGod's promise of a robust future will not gounfulfilled.

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God's words are clear and speak for themselves, butJacob's vision is much more ambiguous and begs forinterpretation: What is the meaning of the ladder, andwhat is Jacob supposed to learn from it? Who arethese angel-messengers, and what does their verticalmovement signify?

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (the "Kedushat Levi"), oneof the greatest of the Hasidic masters, offers adaring reading of Jacob's vision. He suggests thatthe ladder is intended to represent human beings inthis world. Like the ladder, each of us is firmlyplanted on earth--we are corporeal beings with bodilyneeds and earthly desires. But through religiouspractice and striving, we are capable of "reachingupward"--presumably through entering intointellectual and emotional relationship with God, doing God's will, and becoming the kind of Jewand human being God asks for.

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

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