While sleeping, Jacob has a powerful dream, filled with both sight and sound. First, he sees a ladder, or ramp (in Hebrew, Sulam), 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.
However metaphorically we understand his interpretation, the thrust of Levi Yitzhak's comments is clear: God, too, is affected by the choices we make. It seems beyond question that the quality of human life on earth is deeply impacted by the decisions we make and the course of action we take; the daring of Jewish theology is its suggestion that the quality of God's life is, as it were, similarly impacted. In Abraham Joshua Heschel's memorable terms, the God of Judaism is not Aristotle's Unmoved Mover but rather the Torah's radically affected "Most Moved Mover."
According to Levi Yitzhak, through seeing the ladder and the angelic motion taking place on it, Jacob learns of his own potential and of its cosmic repercussions.
Ephraim of Sudlikov (the "Degel Machane Ephraim"), another early Hasidic Master, offers a very different interpretation of Jacob's vision. The ladder filled with upward and downward motion is a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth. There are times when we are in "expanded consciousness" and feel a deep connection to God and Torah (we are, in those moments, "ascending the ladder"), but there are also times when we are afflicted by "contracted consciousness" and feel far away from God (we are then, of course, "descending the ladder").
There is nothing wrong with this up-and-down process, Ephraim assures us. It is an inherent piece of the spiritual life. In fact, it is crucial that we understand that our descents make possible fuller and deeper ascents. Just as in a human relationship, distance or crisis now can often lead to a more profound sense of connection and intimacy later; so in our relationship to God, a period of descent can culminate in a more genuine connection to God. This, Ephraim tells us, is "descent for the purpose of ascent."
The angels or messengers whom Jacob sees journeying up and down the ladder are religious masters. God seeks to show him that even--and perhaps especially--religious leaders of enormous spiritual attainment suffer through moments of distance and descent. But they have no need for fear, since they know that their descent will yet culminate in an ascent that has until now been beyond their imagination.
A third interpretation of Jacob's vision can be found in a medieval midrash known as "Midrash HaGadol" ("The Great Midrash"). According to the midrash, what Jacob actually sees is the future revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Torah serves as a kind of ladder that connects heaven and earth: We strive to live lives firmly rooted in the real world and yet reflective of the values and ideals of heaven. In a moment of utter fear and darkness, Jacob is shown that which can make life meaningful by giving it a connection to transcendence--the Torah, which eternally links God and Israel.
The angels of God who go up and down the ladder signify a religious truth that is also a form of challenge to the Jewish people: "If your children observe [the Torah], they will be raised up; but if they flout it, they will be brought low." In other words, living according to the ideals of Judaism can bring us closer to God and to a higher spiritual level. But failing to do so will drive us further and further away from God and the values God holds dear. The depth of our connection to Torah will affect the place we hold on the ladder (how high or how low), and the authenticity of our striving will determine the direction of our movement (are we headed closer to God or further away?).
The three interpretations we have seen are not unrelated. Levi Yitzhak emphasizes that the choices we make affect not only our world but God's as well-- and that we should strive to live accordingly. Ephraim reminds us that our own religious lives are dynamic and constantly in motion--and we should embrace that fact rather than fear it. Midrash HaGadol articulates a stark reality of the path: Toreceive Torah truly in our lives is to find a way back to God and to restore wholeness to the world (ours and God's). In taking hold of Torah, we ascend the ladder toward heaven, healing and transforming ourselves--and heaven, too.