M'oray Ha'Aish Parshat Vayetzei: Yaakov's Ladder
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Vayetzei(Genesis 28:10-32:3)

Yaakov's Ladder

YAAKOV'S LADDER1

 

ESCAPE FROM BE'ERSHEVA 2

The Parsha begins with Yaakov on the run, ordered by his parents, but propelled by fear of his vengeful, bloodthirsty brother. Yaakov's departure is actually recounted at the end of the previous chapter, in Parshat Toldot:

And Yitzchak sent Yaakov away, and he went to Padan-Aram, to Lavan, son of Betuel the Aramaean, brother of Rivkah, mother of Yaakov and Esau. (Bereishit 28:5)

Now in Parshat Vayetze, the Torah returns to this topic in much greater detail:

And Yaakov went out from Be'er-Sheva, and went toward Haran, and he touched at a [certain] place, and lodged there, because the sun had set, and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.(Bereishit 28:10-11)

As for as his present location, all we are told initially is that he is somewhere between Be'er-Sheva and Haran. The language3 implies that it is fate, not planning, which leads him to this particular place. Yaakov sleeps and dreams and sees a vision of a ladder with its feet on the ground that stretches up to the heavens.

And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, (and its head) and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.(Bereishit 28:12)

The description is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel which also had its foundation on the ground and reached toward the heavens.4 Ironically, it was at that tower that Avraham was thrown into a furnace. Saved by a miracle, he began his journey - away from Ur Kasdim, to the Land of Israel. Now his grandson Yaakov is heading back toward Avraham's homeland because his life is in danger in the Promised Land.

Yaakov sees angels ascending and descending, rather than what we may have expected: angels should first be described as coming down from Heaven and then going back up. This vision leads to an even more profound revelation: he sees God above him (or above the ladder):

And, behold, God stood above him (or above it), and said, 'I am the Lord, the God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzchak. The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendents.(Bereishit 28:5)

We still do not know his precise location, yet he is assured that this is holy land, and that it will one day be his. All that we do know is that he has left Be'er Sheva. Where he lies is still not known.

Yaakov awakens. He now knows that he is on holy ground, and he seems surprised and overwhelmed. Not only is the land holy, this place is the "House of God" and the entrance to Heaven:

16. And Yaakov awoke from his sleep, and he said, surely God is in this place; and I did not know. 17. And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is no other but the House of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.'(Bereishit 28:16-17)

This is the first reference in the Torah to a House of God. At this point it exists only in the supernatural sphere, and Yaakov sees it in a vision. But one day a Tabernacle will be built to travel with the Israelites in the desert, and when the Jews finally return to their homeland the Tabernacle will metamorphose into a physical Temple - the Beit Hamikdash. It all begins with Yaakov's dream and his perception of this place as the gate of Heaven. The reader, however, still does not know where Yaakov is.

And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon its top. And he called the name of that place Beit El; but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Yaakov vowed a vow,5 saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and a garment to wear,and I come back to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God. And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you shall give me I will surely give the tenth to you.(Bereishit 28:18-22)

Yaakov calls the place where he has had this vision Beit El, literally, the House of God, connecting the entrance to Heaven seen in his vision to the House of God he vows to build as a gateway to Heaven.

 

* * *

 

JERUSALEM

Rashi draws an image of the ladder on an angle, stretching across all of the Land of Israel, with the base in Be'er Sheva, the top in Beit El, and the middle directly above what would one day be known as Jerusalem.6 Thus, Rashi solves the question of the exact location of this episode. He7 identifies Beit El with Har HaMoriah, connecting the other Patriarchs to this same place of prayer. Despite the fact that Avraham lived in Be'er Sheva and Yitzchak lived in Be'er L'Hai Ro'i, our tradition teaches us that this spot was a place of prayer for both Avraham and Yitzchak, and the site of the Akeida. At the end of his commentary to this verse, Rashi cites a passage from the Talmud which compares the prayers of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, basing itself on a verse in the book of Micha regarding the Messianic Age:

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the House of God shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. And many nations shall come, and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of God, and to the House of the God of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths; for Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem. (Micha Chapter 4:1-2)

The Talmud explains why it is Yaakov whose name is associated with the House of God, above the other Patriarchs:

R. Eleazar also said, 'What is meant by the verse," And many people shall go and say: 'Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Yaakov'- the God of Yaakov, but not the God of Avraham and Yitzchak? Not like Avraham, in connection with whom 'mountain' is written, as it is said, 'As it is said to this day, 'In the mountain where the Lord is seen.' Nor like Yitzchak, in connection with whom 'field' is written, as it is said, 'And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at eventide.' But like Yaakov, who called it (or called Him) 'home', as it is said, 'And he called the name of that place Beit El ['The House of God'].

The verse quoted, of course, is from our own parsha, when Yaakov sees the gateway to Heaven and senses the need for a House of God. All three Patriarchs are associated with Har HaMoriah, but Yaakov, more than the other Patriarchs, is associated with the Beit Hamikdash. The Zohar8 understands that the first Temple is associated with Avraham, the second with Yitzchak, but the third and final Temple, which will be established in the End of Days and will be everlasting, is related to Yaakov.9 In the words of the Shem MiShmuel, this third Temple will have as its foundation the first two Temples, and will be the culmination of both previous Temples, just as Yaakov was the spiritual culmination and combination of the first two Patriarchs.10

 

* * *

 

SINAI

The Midrash goes in another direction altogether, associating the ladder of Yaakov's vision with Sinai. If taken literally, this would pose a further geographic challenge, but the thematic parallel should not be overlooked: Both Yaakov's ladder and Mount Sinai are conduits to Heaven, methods of approaching Heaven, of bringing information down from Heaven. Perhaps most importantly, both are revelations.

The Rabbis related it to Sinai. AND HE DREAMED, AND BEHOLD A LADDER symbolizes Sinai; SET UPON THE EARTH. as it says, And they stood at the base of the mount (Ex. 19:17); AND THE TOP OF IT REACHED TO HEAVEN-And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Deut. 4:11).4 AND BEHOLD THE ANGELS OF GOD alludes to Moshe and Aharon. ASCENDING: And Moshe went up to God (Ex. 19:3); AND DESCENDING-And Moshe went down from the mount (ib. 14). AND, BEHOLD, THE LORD STOOD ABOVE HIM-And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai (ib. 20). (Bereishit Rabbah 68:12)

The Midrash11 goes one step further with this association and reveals that "Sinai" and "sulam" (ladder) have the same numerical value (130).12 This connection is clarified by a teaching of the Ramban,13 who states that the Revelation at Sinai was a singular, "one-time" experience which would be transferred to the Tabernacle and eventually to the Beit Hamikdash. With that in mind, the connection between the ladder and Sinai becomes more clear.

There is a connection between Yaakov and Sinai. We recall that the 'House of Yaakov' was specifically addressed at Mount Sinai:

And Moshe went up to God, and God called to him from the mountain, saying, 'Thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov, and tell the People of Israel.'

One more connection should be noted: The voice of Yaakov may be seen as a type of ladder as well, when used to study Torah, bringing the words of God down to earth, and when raised in prayer, bringing man's praise and supplication up to Heaven. The commentaries point out that the word "kol" (voice) has the same numerical value as "sulam" (ladder): 130.14

 

* * *

 

MARRIAGE

The word house or bayit also connotes marriage, or a domestic arrangement. Rav Zadok Hakohen, cognizant of Yaakov's mission to seek a wife in Charan, sees part of the essence of Yaakov linked with this other kind of house as well. The Talmud15 states that the word bayit can be used as a synonym for a wife. Rav Zadok16 explains that a home is a place of stability, and a place to build an honest and holy relationship. He contrasts Yaakov's home life with that of Eliphaz, son of Esav, who had an illicit relationship with a woman named Timna; the offspring of this relationship was a child named Amalek.

The Megaleh Amukot17 explains that when Yaakov describes the place of his epiphany as "awesome" ("How awesome is this place!", Bereishit 28:17), it is the spiritual attributes that he senses. Specifically, he sees that this place can help heal a rift created long ago, when Adam and Eve sinned. In the wake of the expulsion that followed, a strain was created in their relationship. According to the Talmud they separated for one hundred and thirty years. When Shet is born the Torah states:

And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Shet; (Bereishit 5:3)

The implication is that prior to this child he had children NOT in his image!

R. Yirmiya b. Eleazar further stated: In all those years during which Adam was under the ban he begot ghosts and male demons and female demons, for it is said in Scripture: And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years and begot a son in his own likeness, after his own image, from which it follows that until that time he did not beget after his own image. (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 18b)

Eviction from Eden had a price. For 130 years Adam and Eve were estranged from one another. Once again, the number 130 is significant, here referring to the lack of "bayit", stable home life.

 

* * *

 

PARADISE LOST

Adam and Eve should have had the perfect relationship. God made the shiduch, and they were, literally, soul-mates. But the expulsion from Eden put sufficient pressure on the relationship that instead of a stable home they had a dysfunctional relationship. The rabbis claim that for 130 years Adam and Eve were estranged from one another. The Talmud speaks of demons and Liliths created during this time, the result of nocturnal emissions. In kabbalistic language this constitutes a weakness of the sefira of Yesod, which is related to sexual self-control and fidelity. Yosef, who displays the ability to contain himself despite the seductive overtures of Potifar's wife, is most closely identified with the kabbalistic sphere of Yesod. According to midrashic and kabbalistic writings, both Adam and Eve18 failed in this particular area during these 130 years. They lacked fidelity; they lacked stability; they lacked a home.

Now wandering, Yaakov needs stability. He needs a home. He needs a wife. Yaakov understands that this is true on a macro level as well: The Jewish People, his descendents, will also need stability; they will also need a home. But as we have seen, this mystical, connecting thread of 130 goes beyond Yaakov both on the individual level and the House of Yaakov on the national level. Yes - the ladder of his vision is a personal vision, with national ramifications. Yes, the voice of Yaakov is a medium through which Heaven and Earth may be brought closer. Yes - the Revelation at Sinai is the ultimate connection between the Jewish People and their Father in Heaven. But this thematic thread of 130 brings us all the way back to Adam and Eve, asking us to consider the ramifications of Yaakov's epiphany on an even larger scale. What, then, is the connection between Yaakov and Adam?

The Talmud states:

R. Kahana's beauty is a reflection of R. Abbahu's; R. Abbahu's is a reflection of our Father Yaakov's; our Father Yaakov's was a reflection of Adam's; (Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 84a)

Yaakov had the same pure, holy countenance as Adam before he ate from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.19 In fact, when Yaakov stands on that holy ground and sees the ladder, what does he ask for? Bread to eat and clothing to wear (28:20), both elements effected by the sin in the Garden of Eden. Man's obligation to work and man's need to cover his nakedness originate from this sin. Ironically, the two interactions recorded between Yaakov and Esav also revolve around food and clothing.

Yaakov is connected to the Tree of Life.20 Yaakov is associated with the Tents (of Torah), with Sinai, with the ladder of his vision and with the voice in search of the Word of God. All of these point to the Tree of Life, another name for Torah. Esav is connected with the other tree - the tree of death. The personification of evil in the Garden was the serpent. His punishment for causing man to be expelled from his home, for causing instability in the intimate relationship between Adam and Eve, is described in the Torah as follows:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he (man) shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Bereishit 3:15)

It starts with enmity between Eve and the serpent, and ends with a heel - the source of the name Yaakov! Who is this serpent that he should have such an adversary? The mystical sources identify the serpent with various nefarious characters, but one in particular stands out: Sama'el, the protecting angel of Esav. Variously associated with Esav,21 with the Angel of Death or with the Serpent, this demonic angel22 has an advantage over Yaakov: Samel has a numerical value of 131.23

When Yaakov goes in to see his father, bringing him food, he is wearing the clothing of Esav. This clothing is traced back to Nimrod - and all the way back to Adam. It may actually have been the skin of the Serpent. Now Yaakov has merged with the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He has entered a world of confusion.

Yaakov is a man of the tents. He desires stability, clarity, Torah; he seeks life. The ironic vicissitudes of his life have taken Yaakov from the tents (Etz HaChayim) to his father's tent, dressed up as Esav (Etz Hada'at Tov v'Ra), and then back out to the road. Under the open sky he seeks stability. He wants a home. He wants happiness. He is an ish tam - and he wants an uncomplicated relationship.

 

* * *

 

ESAV = ANARCHY

When it is Esav's turn to marry, he takes two wives at once,24 inviting disharmony, creating anarchy. Esav's son Eliphaz avoids marriage altogether and fathers an illegitimate child, Amalek. The irony of Yaakov's life is that despite his search for stability - he is forced to wander. Despite wanting to marry the one woman that he loves, he is forced into another marriage. Despite wanting simplicity, he receives complexity. His enemy is as old as Creation: Sama'el, the angel who desires man's confusion and ultimate destruction. But Yaakov is connected to the Tree of Life, thus, in the words of the Sages, "Yaakov Avinu lo met" - Yaakov will never die.25 The secret to his life, his eternal strength, is this: Marriage and happiness, holiness and stability, a house for himself and a House for God. As we have seen, the ladder of his vision stretched across all of the Land of Israel, linking Sinai with the Temple.

 

 

* * *

 

TRUE JOY

Our Rabbi's tell us that the Covenant at Sinai is a marriage.26 So, too, the Revelation at Sinai is described as a healing event.27 Sinai is also where foundations of stability are laid. Sinai is where happiness is rediscovered. The voice (kol) at Sinai is joyful celebration of a marriage, a union of the Jewish People and God. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that the way to defeat the Evil Inclination is with authentic happiness.28 The sulam and the kol are the same: both uplift us when we are down. When the Jewish People were faced with destruction, Yirmiyahu prophesized against despair:

Thus says the Lord; Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say shall be desolate without man and without beast, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, and without inhabitant, and without beast. The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who shall say, Praise the God of Hosts; for God is good; for His mercy endures for ever; the Sacrifice of Praise shall be brought in the House of God, "For I will cause to return the captivity of the land, as at the first," says the Lord. (Yirmiyahu 33:10-11)

Those words are echoed at every Jewish wedding, and they have redemptive powers: they can bring joy and help rebuild the Temple:

R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: Whoever enjoys the wedding meal of a bridegroom and does not help him to rejoice transgresses against 'the five voices' mentioned in the verse: The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that say, Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts. And if he does gladden (the bridegroom), what is his reward? R. Joshua b. Levi said: He is privileged to acquire [the knowledge of] the Torah which was given with five voices. For it is said: And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn . . . and when the voice of the horn waxed louder . . . Moshe spoke and God answered him by a voice. … R. Abbahu says: It is as if he had sacrificed a thanksgiving offering. For it is said: Even of them that bring offerings of thanksgiving into the House of God. R. Nahman b. Yitzchak says: It is as if he had restored one of the ruins of Jerusalem. For it is said: For I will cause the captivity of the land to return as at the first, says the Lord. (Talmud Bavli Brachot 6b)

The voice is a voice of joy, of marriage, of Torah, and of bringing an offering in the Temple of Jerusalem. Those who participate in the joy are seen as having rebuilt one of the ruins of Jerusalem, for all of these ideas are inextricably linked, made of the same voice of joy. This is what Yaakov perceived, lying on the ground someplace between Be'ersheba and Charan. Despite the fact that he now knew that he was in a holy place - perhaps the holiest place on Earth - and that this place would belong to him and his descendents, he nonetheless continued his journey to find his bride, while at the same time dedicating himself to building the House of God that he saw in his dream.

 

* * *

 

AN ANGELIC DANCE

Rabbi Nachman offers another perspective on the merger of Sinai and the ladder (sulam). He explains that the angels who are seen "going up and coming down" were, in fact, dancing. The kinetic movement of the dance is the movement of an angel whose feet no longer touch the ground, reaching toward heaven. Every wedding is like Sinai, every wedding should connect us with Heaven as if we had a ladder.29 If we are to defeat the Evil Inclination, the melancholy of self - doubt, we must open our eyes and watch the angels going up and coming down. If we do more than just watch, and actually, physically join in the dance and song, we will find ourselves a little closer to heaven.

 

 

NOTES

1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at http://arikahn.blogspot.com/.

2 This shiur was originally given on the occasion of the shloshim of Rabbi Salim Dweck of blessed memory. It is presented here with a number of changes.

3. The word vayifgah sounds happenstance. So, to, "for the sun had set" implies that it set unexpectedly.

4. See Bereishit 11:4: "And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

5. It is possible that the word vow, "neder" in Hebrew is etomologically related to dira - "dwelling place": A vow holy is holy because it turns something mundane into a place for God to dwell. See Rabenu Bachya Bamidbar 30:3.

6. Rashi's comments are on the words "this is none other than a House of God" 28:17. Apparently Rashi associates "House of God" with the ultimate House of God - the Temple in Jerusalem.

7. This comment by Rashi does not appear in all printed texts.

8. See Midrash Ne'elam Parshat Acharei Mot, and see .Rav Zadok Kometz Mincha part 2 section 61.

9. See Avodat Yisrael (the Maggid from Kuznitz) Parshat Vayetzei, who makes this point as well.

10. Shem Mishmuel Parshat Maatot 5675.

11. Bereishit Rabbah 68:12.

12. Sulam is spelled in the Torah defectively - without a vav, rather samach (60) lamed (30) mem (40). Sinai is samach (60) yud (10) nun (50) yud (10).

13. See Commentary of Ramban to the Torah, Shmot 40:34.

14. A number of commentaries also take note that kol - as in the voice of Yaakov, which has been connected to Yaakov's learning of Torah - is also equal 130 and is also written defectively in the Torah. It is more common for kol to be written with a vav - and then the value is 136 (the same as sulam when written with a vav). In the verse which speaks of the voice of Yaakov it is written both ways! See Bereishit 27:22: See Baal Haturim Bereshit 28:12, Sefer Hakana (Avigdor Ben Yitzchak Karo).

15. Tamud Bavli Yoma 2a.

16. Resisay Layla section 42.

17. See Megaleh Amukot, Parshat Vayera.

18. The sources view Eve's relationship with the serpent as having sexual overtones.

19. See Arizal sefer Haliquitim Vayeshev.

20. See Shla Hakodesh parshat Chayei Sara.

21. The Megaleh Amukot Vetchanan aspect 47, identifies the serpent with Esav.

22. The Zohar (Bereshit 170a) reveals that this is the identity of the "man" who wrestled with Yaakov.

23. See Megaleh Amukot Vetchanan aspect 191.

24. See Bereshit 26:34,35: "And Esau was forty years old when he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they made life bitter for Isaac and for Rebekah."

25. Tamud Bavli Ta'anit 5b.

26. Tamud Bavli Ta'anit 26b.

27. See Midrash Rabbah - Shmot 2:4 - this is why so many hospitals are named "Mount Sinai" - because of the healing power of the place.

28. Likutei Halachot, Brachot Hodaah, Halacha 6.

29. Sichot Maharan section 86.

 

Published: November 29, 2008

Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Yehudith Shraga, November 18, 2012 3:30 PM

Wonderful explanation

It is an outstanding explanation of the Jacob's ladder and Sinai spiritual marrige between G-d and jewish people, thank you very much.

(1) mayer zayan, December 21, 2008 7:46 AM

pleasure

it is always a pleasure to read and listen to your wonderfull explanations, agreeing with them is not the issue their construction is so thigh and strong. it ia delicacy to read them. keep on.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub
Sign up today!