Parshat Vayetzei contains one of the most iconic images in Jewish tradition: Jacob’s Ladder. While many of us picture this well-known image through the artistic lens of Chagall or Blake, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Why a ladder?” After all, God appeared to Moshe in a burning bush, to the Jewish people at the top of a mountain, and to Eliyahu in a “thin, still voice.” Why, then, did God choose a ladder, albeit in a dream, to make His presence known to Yaakov? In order to answer this question, we must understand the symbolism of a ladder, specifically as it pertains to “Avodat HaShem,” the “Service of God.” According to Rav Hirsch, “A ladder is shown to him, signifying that there is a link between the terrestrial and the celestial realms…The ladder’s purpose, however, is not to descend from heaven to earth, but to ascend from earth toward heaven…Everything on earth is summoned and destined to rise and ascend toward a lofty, heaven-set goal” (Commentary on Bereshit 28:12). Thus, God chose the ladder to teach Yaakov that all human efforts must rise from their lower place of origin towards their loftier destinations, and in this way, bridge the divide between heaven and earth. But how is this actually accomplished?
According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, the answer to this question comes from the Talmud, which teaches us, “What is different about techelet (sky-blue) from all other colors [such that it was specified for the commandment of tzitzit]? It is because sky-blue dye is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory” (Chullin 89a). Rav Moshe asks, “Why didn’t God command the use of a color for tzitzit which would immediately remind us of the Throne of Glory? Why did God need to use a color which reminds us of several other things, until finally, we arrive at the Throne of Glory? It seems that it comes to teach us about the way to serve God. A person must move from one rung to the next until finally, he or she reaches the Throne of Glory. One cannot leap in one moment from one rung to another which is totally beyond one’s grasp. This is the way to serve God in all matters. A person must ascend from one rung to the next, until each rung has been encountered, creating the wholeness of a journey. When a person moves from one rung to the next, slowly, intentionally, he or she will internalize the lessons of their progression in a steady, sure way” (Sefer Kol Ram, Shelach 275:17). Furthermore, in his commentary on the Torah, the Gra adds, “One must progress from one level to the next as one ascends a ladder. One cannot grab a hold of a rung that is too high, for if one does, if one jumps to reach it, he or she will never reach it, and will fall.”
The ladder symbolizes the way one must approach living a spiritual life. Yaakov’s life was filled with “up’s and down’s.” Yet, by showing him the ladder, Yaakov understood that true spiritual progress can only be made by slowly and steadily rising to attain one’s spiritual goals. The Jewish people are named after Yaakov, “Bnei Yisrael,” because that same understanding of how to serve God via a spiritual ladder is the same way we as Jews approach spiritual progress to this very day.
This Shabbat, let us consider the spiritual goals we have for ourselves. How will we ever reach them? The answer is by slowly and steadily climbing the “ladders” God has set for us all, reaching for one rung after the other, never jumping or skipping, moving constantly towards our destinies, so that in the end, we can reach the Throne of Glory and know that every step we’ve taken, every struggle we have endured has helped us become the Jews we long to be, and lead the lives we deserve to lead.