By: Rabbi Brad L. Bloom MSW DD,
Congregation Beth Yam
, Hilton Head, South Carolina
Jacob spends a night in the desert after fleeing his brother Esau. He has left Be’er Sheva and was headed to the old country of Haran to seek out the family from his ethnic roots. He camps out and dreams of a ladder reaching up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. In this dream he hears God assuring him of the Abrahamic covenant that his people will be great and that the Promised Land will be his. Jacob is amazed and responds by saying, “Surely the Eternal One is in this place and I did not know it.” Continuing on he exclaimed, “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven” (28:16-16).
What was the purpose of these angels? And do these angels shed any insight on our search for spiritual growth? Rashi asks the question: Did they first ascend and afterwards descend? Furthermore, Rashi adds that the angels that accompanied Jacob in the land of Israel do not go outside of the land. And so those angels ascended (the ladder) to the heavens, then descended the angels from outside the land of Israel to continue accompanying Jacob on his journey. So Rashi is suggesting here that Jacob leaving the Promised Land towards Haran represents a kind of spiritual descent even though he is fleeing for his life.
tradition has its own views about the meaning of the ascending and descending angels upon the ladder in Jacob’s dream that relate to the past and future of the Jewish people. One interpretation by Bar Kappara taught that the ladder was the altar of the Bet HaMikdash. The top of the ladder reaching to heaven represents the scent of the sacrificial offerings and ‘the angels of God’ are the high priests of the Temple. (Genesis Rabbah 68:3)
Still another view from the
describes the ladder as referring to Sinai, and the angels are Moses and Aaron.
Finally, the sages Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Yannai had two interpretations on the meaning of the angels going up and coming down the ladder. “One said that the angels were going up and coming down on the ladder and offers nothing more than a simple or literal understanding. The other said that the angels in this dream were going up and coming down upon Jacob himself. The midrash goes on to say that the angels were raising him up and dragging him down, dancing on him, leaping on him and abusing him.” The angels say, “Are you the one whose visage is engraved above?” They would then go up and look at his features and go down and examine him sleeping. These two rabbis say that the matter may be compared to the case of a king who was in session and judging cases in a judgment chamber. So people go up to the basilica and find him asleep. They then go down to the judgment chamber and find him judging cases (Genesis Rabbah 68:6).
Their conclusion is that above means in the heavens, referring to heavenly beings; that whoever speaks in favor of Israel rises up the ladder, and whoever condemns Israel goes down the ladder. Below, starting in the earthy presence, means that whoever speaks in favor of Israel goes down from the heavens to the people themselves, and whoever condemns Israel goes up to the holy beings away from the Jewish people…
Maybe a group of psychoanalysts would enjoy the opportunity to posit an interpretation of this last
? Is the idea here that Jacob is not an entirely perfect spiritual being? In fact, the angels might question whether he is fit for the future that God promised him. Or is the dream of the angels harassing him indicative of his own self-doubt about whether he is worthy of carrying on the Abrahamic promise, questioning whether or not he has faith not only in God but in himself?
Many centuries later a sage, Rabbi Abraham Zalmans (Iturei Torah on Genesis 28:12) commented on this theme saying that the angels of God are the righteous people in the world; sometimes they ascend and other times descend life’s ladder. All of us, even the most spiritually gifted, fall at times and face obstacles in our path. The point, according to Rabbi Zalmans, is to keep striving and climbing the ladder even if we fall down a few rungs. The idea is not to give up no matter what others think of us or how we may judge ourselves.