The Torah in Parashat Vayeitzei tells of Yaakov’s famous dream that he dreamt as he slept one night during his journey from Canaan to Charan, where he would spend the next twenty years. Yaakov dreamt of a ladder extending from the ground to the heavens, and of angels were ascending and descending that ladder (28:12).
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary, discusses the significance of the vision of a ladder as Yaakov traveled, and notes the fact that the ladder is described as extending upwards, not downwards. Although the ladder was traveled in both directions, its primary direction was clearly from the ground to the heavens, as the Torah explicitly states: “…there was a ladder set on the ground, and its top reached the heavens.” On this basis, Rav Hirsch suggests an explanation for the significance of this vision:
Such was the first trend of thought which was shown to him [Yaakov] so that, first of all, in general, that the whole life on earth, including accordingly, human life, his own life also, has its goal, not in the plains – not from Beer-Sheba to Haran – but in the heights…that everything earthly is invited from above to work itself upwards to a heavenly high goal…
Yaakov was shown that although he was now journeying from Be’er Sheva to Charan, he was to see himself as journeying from the earth to the heavens. In whatever we are doing and wherever we are going, we are to set before us the sublime goal of reaching the heavens. Over the course of any given day, we involve ourselves in many different activities, most of which are not directly associated with the “heavens,” with spiritual achievement. According to Rav Hirsch, the vision of the ladder shown to Yaakov is intended to teach us to strive towards “heavenly,” spiritual aspirations during any “journey” we travel at any point in our lives.
Tradition teaches that Yaakov had tirelessly devoted his younger years to intensive study. Now, he was on his way to Charan where he would marry, beget children, and work as a shepherd. He was at this stage embarking on a much different kind of “journey” than he had been traveling until this point in his life. The message conveyed to him – and to us – through the vision of the ladder is that even his new journey must be aimed heavenward, towards lofty and sublime goals. At every station in life, and under any circumstances we happen to find ourselves in at any given moment, we must find the “ladder” leading to the “heavens,” the opportunities presented to us to achieve something meaningful and to elevate ourselves. If we live with this mindset and perspective, then we will be rising to the “heavens” at all times, no matter what we are involved in, and will be leading a meaningful, “heavenly” life even amid the mundane realities and constraints of our world.