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.
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.
However metaphorically we understand hisinterpretation, the thrust of Levi Yitzhak's commentsis clear: God, too, is affected by the choices wemake. It seems beyond question that the quality ofhuman life on earth is deeply impacted by thedecisions we make and the course of action we take;the daring of Jewish theology is its suggestionthat the quality of God's life is, as it were,similarly impacted. In Abraham Joshua Heschel'smemorable terms, the God of Judaism is not Aristotle'sUnmoved Mover but rather the Torah's radically affected"Most Moved Mover."
According to Levi Yitzhak, through seeing the ladderand the angelic motion taking place on it, Jacoblearns of his own potential and of its cosmicrepercussions.
Ephraim of Sudlikov (the "Degel Machane Ephraim"),another early Hasidic Master, offers a very differentinterpretation of Jacob's vision. The ladder filledwith upward and downward motion is a metaphor for thereligious life of any human being here on earth. There are times when we are in "expandedconsciousness" and feel a deep connection to God andTorah (we are, in those moments, "ascending theladder"), but there are also times when we areafflicted by "contracted consciousness" and feel faraway from God (we are then, of course, "descending theladder").
There is nothing wrong with this up-and-down process, Ephraim assures us. It is an inherentpiece of the spiritual life. In fact, it is crucialthat we understand that our descents make possiblefuller and deeper ascents. Just as in a humanrelationship, distance or crisis now can often lead toa more profound sense of connection and intimacylater; so in our relationship to God, a period ofdescent can culminate in a more genuine connection toGod. This, Ephraim tells us, is "descent for thepurpose of ascent."
The angels or messengers whom Jacob sees journeyingup and down the ladder are religious masters. God seeks to show him that even--andperhaps especially--religious leaders of enormousspiritual attainment suffer through moments ofdistance and descent. But they have no need for fear,since they know that their descent will yet culminatein an ascent that has until now been beyondtheir imagination.