Yaacov's Vision of the Ladder
Last week, we began to consider the contrasting characters and destinies of Ya'acov and Esav, the twin offspring of Yitzchak and Rivka. The Torah in Parashat Toldot noted a lengthy series of differences between the two, divergences that were the eventual source of disagreement and antagonism. That Parasha concluded with the climactic event of Ya'acov's deceptive acquisition of the patriarchal blessing from his aged and blind father, in the aftermath of which he was forced to flee for his life from the murderous wrath of his brother Esav. This time, we will carefully study the account of that flight, returning to complete our discussion of the two brothers next week.
Ya'acov went forth from Be'er Sheva, and journeyed towards Charan. He encountered the place and slept there because the sun had set. He took stones from the place and placed them around his head and he slept at that place. He dreamt, and behold there was a ladder standing firmly upon the ground with its top touching the heavens, and behold angels of the Lord were ascending and descending upon it. Behold God stood over him and said: "I am God, the Lord of Avraham your ancestor and the God of Yitzchak, the land upon which you sleep I shall give to you and to your descendents. Your offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and you shall spread out to the west, the east, the north and to the south, and all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed on account of you and your descendents. Behold I will be with you, and I shall watch over you wherever you go and I shall return you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have fulfilled all that I have spoken concerning you…" (Bereishit 28:10-15).
THE COMMENTARY OF RASHI
Alone and afraid, Ya'acov embarked on his journey. Tearfully, he left his parents – his selfless mother whom he would never see again, and his blind and infirm father bent with age – and ascended into the hills north of Be'er Sheva, as the sun began to cast ominous shadows all around him. Sinking faster and faster towards the horizon, the fiery orb soon set the swirling clouds ablaze with flames of orange, crimson and violet, and the solitary figure anxiously paused. Night fell as Ya'acov gathered stones and arranged them around his head "to protect himself from wild animals" (Rashi, 11th century, France, commentary to verse 28:11) and then fell into a deep slumber. The distressing thoughts that had weighed down upon him since the eve of his sudden departure were unexpectedly lifted by the dream vision of the ladder and its angelic entourage.
These angels first ascended and then others descended to take their place. The angels that had accompanied him within the land of Canaan do not leave its borders, and they therefore ascended back to the heavens. Angels associated with outside the land then descended to accompany him further (Rashi, 28:12).
As Rashi sees it, Ya'acov's vision was not of a ladder with a constant flow of angels up and down, but rather of a discrete group of angels ascending its steps to be replaced by another group coming down them. Since the sanctity of Canaan is more pronounced than that of other lands due to its identification with the presence of God, the angels associated with it do not leave its environs. Thus, the angels that had accompanied Ya'acov during the course of his taking leave from Be'er Sheva were not able to continue with him as he approached the border, and were therefore replaced by a different group.
THE THEMES OF EXILE AND RESTORATION
An analysis of the nature of angels is clearly beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that as Divine messengers and agents, angels frequently herald the imminent manifestation of God's presence and the communication of His word. For Rashi, then, the essence of Ya'acov's dream is to impress upon him that he is about to leave the hallowed earth of Canaan, to enter the foreboding hinterlands where Canaan's angels dare not tread. The fear of banishment from hallowed earth, the existential dread that it ought to arouse, the conscious awareness of leaving the precious land behind, are forever seared into Ya'acov's memory by the vision of the departing angels. Though other angels take their place to protect the future patriarch, they are presumably of a different and lower caliber.
The inspiration for Rashi's interpretation is derived from the words of God that inform the vision: "…the LAND upon which you sleep I shall give to you and to your descendents. Your offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and you shall spread out to the west, the east, the north and to the south, and all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed on account of you and your descendents. Behold I will be with you, and I shall watch over you WHEREVER YOU GO and I shall return you to this LAND…" Here, God first informs Ya'acov that the land of Canaan will one day be inhabited by his descendents and then goes on to offer him an oath of Divine security "wherever he goes," namely beyond its borders. While extending to Ya'acov the promise of His protection and the assurance of his return, God's words also strike in his mind a melancholy note – they indicate to him that he is about to suffer an indeterminate period of physical self-exile and spiritual estrangement from Canaan's sanctity.
THE EXPLANATION OF RABBI AVRAHAM IBN EZRA
The approach of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) is quite different. After rejecting a series of interpretations that symbolically identified the ladder and its angels with thoughts of the soul or else with prayer, Ibn Ezra offers what he considers to be the vision's true import:
The matter is metaphorical. It is to suggest that there is nothing concerning which God is unaware. The affairs of the terrestrial plane are dependent upon the heavens, and it is as if a ladder joins the two. Upon that ladder, the angels ascend in order to inform of all that transpires on earth, while other angels descend in order to perform God's will. It is like the dealings of a king with his servants (commentary to 28:12).
Unlike Rashi, Ibn Ezra perceives the ladder as a continuous loop. Angels ascend its steps while other angels descend. Those that rise towards the heavens carry with them reports of all that happens below, the deeds of people and the actions of nations, to be brought before God and presented to Him. Those that descend do so in turn, bearing with them the burden of God's mission, the Divine response to all that the first group of angels has reported. Of course, Ibn Ezra points out, the verses convey only a parable, a fanciful description of a fundamental truth: God is omniscient, absolutely aware of human lives, interested in human choices, concerned by human failures, and responsive to human prayers. But His perfect knowledge needs no angels to enhance it and His response does not require angelic agents to carry it out. Ya'acov's dream vision is therefore only that: a somewhat coarse mental picture whose true import can only be appreciated in refined spiritual terms.
RASHI VS. IBN EZRA
These twin themes of awareness and involvement, the pillars upon which the edifice of Divine Providence stands, are perfectly echoed in God's subsequent words to the sleeping figure: "Behold I will be with you, and I shall watch over you wherever you go and I shall return you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have fulfilled all that I have spoken concerning you…"
Thus, Rashi's reading concentrated on the narrow and immediate experience of Ya'acov in flight, the exile from Canaan that preoccupies his thoughts, and saw the main thrust of God's comforting words as addressing the perils of that journey. Ibn Ezra, in contrast, broadens the perspective to address the much more encompassing theme of God's relationship to the world, and therefore sees in His call to the patriarch the essence of that underlying theme. The vision of the ladder and its angels is only a metaphor that alludes to a truth that cannot really be comprehended in physical terms: there is a cohesive and continuous bond between earth and heaven, between man and God, between our deeds and God's response. Though the ways of Providence may often strike us as mysterious, capricious or incomprehensible, they are never arbitrary. God will watch over Ya'acov and protect him, all the while guiding his steps towards the destiny that must be his.
THE APPROACH OF THE RAMBAN
While the commentary of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) appears to echo that of Ibn Ezra, it does contain some critical new ideas:
"…behold there was a ladder standing firmly upon the ground with its top touching the heavens, and behold angels of the Lord were ascending and descending upon it" – God showed him by way of this dream that all that transpires upon earth is performed by the angels who fulfill God's decree. The angels of the Lord whom He has dispatched to traverse the earth can perform neither small nor great deeds until they have returned to the Master of the world and reported to Him that 'we have roamed the earth, and behold its inhabitants are at peace,' or else they say 'it is full of the sword and bloodshed.' God then commands them to descend again to the terrestrial plane and to perform His will (commentary to 28:12).
So far, the Ramban seems to have repeated the sentiments of the Ibn Ezra, for he too traces a picture of God's surveillance of man's actions and the unavoidable consequence of His response. The angels are nothing more than a tangible expression of His will that itself operates according to a conceptually comprehensible model of cause and effect. We act here on earth, and God responds in kind from His heavenly abode. But then the Ramban adds a critical comment:
He then saw that God, blessed be He, stood upon the ladder and offered Ya'acov an awesome pledge. This was to indicate that he will not be subject to the angels but rather will be God's special portion, for He will be with him always. Thus God exclaims: 'Behold I will be with you, and I shall watch over you wherever you go,' for Ya'acov's status will surpass that of the other righteous ones concerning whom it is said that 'He will appoint His angels to protect you wherever you go' (Tehillim 91:11)…
Thus, the Ramban not only detects the themes of Providence and personal supervision as had Ibn Ezra before him, but hears in God's words a special and unique promise of involvement. Apparently, though God is entirely aware of every man's acts and is thoroughly involved with every person's destiny, there are those who merit a more intimate aspect of His concern. To be under the purview of the angels does not imply any sort of independent supervision on their part. They are perfect expressions of God's will and the natural extension of His resolve. Nevertheless, there is still a more exalted dimension of existence in which the individual experiences a more pronounced form of God's protection and love. In the spiritual realms, as in the physical, directness makes all of the difference. Interestingly enough, the Ramban bases his reading upon the unexpected appearance of God in the vision, Whose presence suddenly is manifest at the ladder's summit in order to extend to Ya'acov the promise of His special and exclusive concern. For Ibn Ezra, of course, God's words are meant to provide reinforcement and explanation of the angelic symbolism, rather than calculated to reveal additional facets of His interaction with His chosen ones.
We thus have seen three different interpretations of Ya'acov's vision, each one of them in close consonance with the text and each one of them constituting the outcome of its careful and nuanced study. While we are often conditioned to consider the words of the commentaries to be in disagreement and conflict, to be expressing mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed readings of the text (and this is sometimes the case), our analysis this week demonstrates that this is not always so. Often the commentaries can be understood as complementing each other, as providing us with different facets of the matter that taken together reveal the breadth and profundity of the Biblical narrative. The text of the Torah is of Divine origin, and its measured words therefore provide us with an inexhaustible source of meaning.
We would do well to bear in mind that the Talmudic (Tractate Chullin 91a) and Midrashic (Bereishit Rabba 68:9) traditions identified the site of Ya'acov's nocturnal vision with the future location of the Temple, thus casting that building as the potent link between heaven and earth, God and man. In its precincts we experience His presence and in its absence we feel the pain of His perceived distance. Of course, here tradition draws a connection between the heartfelt dreams of a man in distress and a building that was not physically constructed until almost one thousand years after his death. In so doing, the sources highlight the truth that the search for God, the desire to be connected to His presence, the peace of mind that only comes about as a function of recognizing His ongoing involvement in our lives and care for our well-being, is as ancient as recorded history and just as real.