Parshat Vayeitzei | What does Jacob’s ladder represent?



There’s an image in this week’s parsha that captures the essence of who we are and why we are here. As Jacob left home and headed towards Charan, he saw a ladder in a dream. “And behold, there was a ladder that was placed on the ground and its head reached the heavens.”[1] It’s a famous prophetic image, Jacob’s ladder. What does it really mean?


It’s crucial for us to understand because Jacob, one of the three founding fathers of the Jewish people, was shown a vision not only of his own future, but also that of the Jewish people. I would like to delve into this from the perspective of the Baal HaTurim, one of the great sages of the Middle Ages.[2] He typically links the Midrash and passages from the Talmud to the verse, and he also uses gematria, the numerical value of the letters. Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and he was a master of unlocking the secrets of the verse by looking at the numerical values.


He says the word sulam – ladder – has a number of interesting numerical equivalents.[3] It has the same numerical value as Sinai. The Baal HaTurim refers to the Midrash, which says that G-d showed Jacob a vision of the revelation at Mount Sinai.[4] Why would Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah be compared to a ladder? At the heart of it is that the entire enterprise of Torah is about connecting heaven and earth. In fact, the Midrash says that G-d created the Torah before He created this world, and He used the Torah as the blueprint for this world.[5] This world was created to be the arena for carrying out the mitzvot. There is a dramatic encounter in the Talmud,[6] where the angels complain to G-d, asking Him how He could give the Torah to mere mortals. Moses responded to them, saying the Ten Commandments are only applicable to human beings. For example, ‘honour your parents’, ‘do not murder’, ‘do not steal’, ‘do not commit adultery’, ‘keep Shabbos’ – angels aren’t able to do any of these.

The physical world’s whole meaning and purpose is only in terms of it as a place to carry out G-d’s will. Therefore, the ladder is a profound symbol of Mount Sinai, because it is about linking heaven and earth. That is what the Torah is – a blueprint for bringing heaven down to earth.


The Baal HaTurim expands on this. He says that sulam also shares the numerical value of kol – a voice – representing us calling out to G-d in prayer. The phrase “the ladder was placed” has the same gematria (327) as “the ramp”, referring to the ramp that led up to the altar in the Temple. “Land” – another word in the phrase – refers to the altar that was filled with soil. “And its head reached the heavens” – this refers to the sacrifices that were offered up on the altar. The Temple and prayer both represent the idea that, as human beings, we are capable of a connection with G-d.


That is the premise of the entire Torah. All the mitzvot that we do are really about connecting us to G-d. They are an expression of His will. We, as the children of Jacob, have a mandate to live with the ladder, bringing down G-d’s values to earth and forming a bond of deep connection with Him.


The Baal HaTurim continues with something very interesting. He says that the word “ladder” has the same gematria (136) as wealth – mamon, and also as poverty – oni. He refers to the Midrash that says sometimes G-d lifts up a person and blesses them with abundance, and sometimes He takes away the abundance.[7] Furthermore, he says that the words “v’hinei sulam” – “and behold a ladder” – have the same gematria (196) as v’keitz – “the end”, referring to the time of the final redemption. He goes on to say that the word sulam has the same letters as the word le’mas – a burden which is imposed, referring to the exile.


Let’s try and unravel what the Baal HaTurim is saying. He is talking about the ladder, symbolising how G-d can bring abundance or deprivation to a person – how G-d can bring exile or redemption to the Jewish people. How does that connect with the concept of a ladder? The clue here lies in the rest of the verse, which says that angels were climbing up and down the ladder.


What is meant by ‘angels’? Angels are an expression of G-d’s will that He directs into this world. In Jacob’s vision, they go up and down. There is a dynamic interaction between heaven and earth. When we mention the ladder representing Mount Sinai or the Temple and our prayers, it refers to our efforts in connecting heaven and earth. But the dynamic works in both directions. G-d is aware of, cares about and directs what is happening in our world.[8]


This means that both in our lives as individuals, and in our national destiny as the Jewish people, we are in G-d’s hands. That is what faith and trust in G-d mean. We believe with perfect faith that G-d is directing life, that He loves us, and that whatever happens to us – even when we don’t understand why – comes from Him with love, care and concern.[9] The ladder represents how we have to bring the values of heaven to earth, but it also shows that G-d is interested in and connected to what is happening on earth. G-d is not in another dimension, disconnected from our world. He is One[10] and He has no body.[11] He is everywhere.[12]


This vision was crucial to show to Jacob at this point, as he was leaving home to get married, start a family and to continue the legacy of his father and grandfather, Abraham and Isaac. G-d gave him the vision of what it means to be a Jew. We have a mandate to carry out G-d’s will in this world, to create a world of goodness and kindness, of holiness and righteousness. It also means we believe with perfect faith that G-d is deeply connected to us and to what is happening in our lives, as individuals and as a nation.


The vision was also crucial at that moment in Jacob’s personal life. He needed the inspiration of the ladder to highlight that his mission was to be connected to G-d, and for G-d to assure him that He was looking after him. With the uncertainties of the future, Jacob could have peace of mind that G-d was with him. The ladder gave him inspiration for his life at that moment and it gives us inspiration each day of our lives, as individuals and as a people.


[1] Genesis 28:12 [2] Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1343) is often referred to as the Ba'al HaTurim (Master of the Columns), after his magnum opus on Jewish law, the Arba’ah Turim (Four Columns), which covers four main areas of Jewish law. [3] Baal HaTurim, Genesis 28:12, “sulam” can be spelled either with a “vav”, a numerical value of 6, or without a “vav”, thus the gematria of “sulam” can be either 136 or 130, depending on the spelling. [4] Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 68:12 [5] Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 1:1; see also Zohar, Parshat Terumah 2:161a [6] Talmud, Shabbat 88b-89a [7] Midrash, Tanchuma, Matot 6:1; Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 22:8 [8] Talmud, Berachot 33b; Talmud, Megillah 25a; Talmud, Niddah 16b [9] See Chazon Ish, Emunah Uvitachon 2:1 [10] Deuteronomy 6:4; Rambam, Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Principle of Faith 2 [11] Rambam, Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Principle of Faith 3 [12] Rambam, Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Principle of Faith 10

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