Progressing Step by Step in the Service of G-d
It is written, “And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward” (Genesis 28:12). Concerning this subject, the commentators say that the ladder symbolizes man, who is placed on earth, standing on his own two feet. By the strength that he acquires, he can reach the heights of heaven.
Let us explain this concept. If the Torah wants to make us understand that man, well attached to the earth both by his physical and terrestrial nature, is capable of soaring and acquiring a level of spirituality akin to that of the angels, why does it tell us this by showing Jacob a ladder? Why not show him that he himself can make it to the heavens? What is the exact nature of the ladder?
It should be noted that a ladder is made of rungs that allow one to ascend – or to descend – which would be impossible without these steps. This means that to attain these heights, a man is forced to put himself in danger and to take it upon himself to make an effort to climb, for the service of G-d is a progressive ascent. The one who climbs the rungs gets tired and becomes short of breath. He groans as much for the effort that he has to put in so as to continuing climbing, as for the time that it takes before reaching the goal (which is contrary to climbing down, which requires little effort or time). All this is because the goal that he aspires to – the top of the ladder – is still far away. In the same way, the one who wants to progress and attain spiritual goals should advance upwards with his own strength, progressively, and elevate himself in stages. It is precisely by a progressive elevation on the ladder of perfection that one can make it to the top. We find the following instruction several times in the Talmud: “Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair said, ‘Torah leads to prudence, prudence leads to diligence, diligence leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to separateness, separateness leads to purity, purity leads to piety, piety leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to holiness, holiness leads to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead. And piety is the greatest quality of all’ ” (Shekalim 6a). In books of ethics, this teaching is called “The Ladder of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair,” and it serves as the foundation for Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzato’s book Messilat Yesharim, concerning which the Vilna Gaon said that there was not one superfluous word to be found therein.
The word .-2 (ladder) has a numerical value of 130, which points to the 130 years that Adam separated himself from his wife Eve (Eruvin 18b) after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge. Adam wanted to separate himself from material things, so much was he mortified after having brought death into the world. This separation allowed him to be called “pious” (Eruvin 18b; Zohar III:76b). This teaches us that to attain the degree of piety which is the summit of the ladder (since piety is the greatest of qualities on Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair’s ladder), a man should separate himself as much as possible from the desires of this world in order to make them meaningless to him. In this way, he will be able to elevate himself ever more in the rungs of sanctification, and after having successfully climbed every rung that leads to piety, he will reach the height of perfection.
Jacob’s ladder – and its secret – represents a progressive march, a step-by-step climb that allows one to attain ever greater heights, until reaching the virtue of piety and the resurrection of the dead.
We should also mention that the verse which states, “and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12) teaches us that abandoning the lures and temptations of this world is so difficult that, despite himself, man “ascends and descends” – there are rises and there are falls. But a man should not panic, nor should he get discouraged, for it is written right afterwards, “the L-RD was standing over him” (v.13). If a man understands that G-d is standing above him, that He is there to support him despite his falls (failures that are due to the fact that man is “on the earth,” attached to material and earthly things), he will realize that G-d will always be there to help him climb to ever higher levels and to make it to the highest rungs, allowing him to reach the very heavens.
Nevertheless, a man risks becoming discouraged and telling himself, “How is it possible that a being such as myself – a creature of flesh and blood, dust and ashes, and sunk in materialism – can climb and attain the level of an angel in heaven?” Yet this thought should not bother him or create impediments in his mind. He should realize that G-d loves him and will not abandon him, but that He demands ever more effort from him. It is clear that this is not an easy thing to achieve because the evil inclination stands on the lookout and “everyday tries to kill the righteous man” (Kiddushin 30b). The evil inclination tries to catch man in the net that it throws for him, and to make him fall to the lowest levels. A man should guard himself from these dangers, knowing that G-d watches over him and calls him to serve and honor Him with all his heart.
In fact, we see that Jacob elevated himself progressively, even above the angels, as during the fight with Esau’s ministering angel (Chullin 91a). He defeated the latter and said to him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:27), and the angel could not leave without Jacob’s permission: “He said to him, ‘let me go’, and the one who sends is greater than the one who is sent” (Bereshith Rabba 78:2). Furthermore it is written, “You fought against the heavenly powers and you defeated them; you fought against the earthly powers and you defeated them. The heavenly powers refer to the Esau’s angel” (ibid. 78:6).
Is seems necessary for us to read the passage which states, “And you shall spread to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south” (Genesis 28:14), which Rashi explains as: “ ‘And you shall spread’ – you shall be powerful,” powerful in your service of G-d. Rabbi Chiya explains the verse that states, “Bless the L-RD, O His angels; the strong warriors who do his bidding” (Psalms 103:20) as follows: “ ‘His angels’ are those upright men of the earth who are, in the eyes of G-d, like heavenly beings, for they heroically overcome their desires, as a courageous man overcomes his enemies … and henceforth who can stand by their side, other than those who are sanctified, and whom the Divine Presence never leaves?” (Zohar 190a, 108).
“The entire world receives its sustenance because of righteous men” (Zohar III:216a). When Israel walks in the ways of Torah and “your people will all be righteous” (Isaiah 60:21), all the prosperity they receive from on high is rightfully theirs, and the nations of the world also rejoice, thanks to Israel (Zohar III:147b). In such a case, the Children of Israel, who as we know have the status of the “sons of the King” (Shabbat 67a), are like the King himself, who opens the way (Pesachim 110b), going from the front and uniting everything that they undertake, for everything was created for them and their merit. This allows us to understand what G-d told Jacob: “And you shall spread” (Genesis 28:14) – you will have the strength to rise and to elevate yourself on the ladder of perfection, and this will allow you to receive that which was promised to you; “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (ibid.) – all the peoples will be blessed and rejoice in the prosperity that stems from you.
It would be disastrous if the situation were otherwise, if the Jewish did not follow the ways of Torah and justice, for then the nations of the world would receive all the good destined for Israel. Thanks to upright behavior, we can dominate our own desires as much as we can dominate our enemies, and we can elevate ourselves on the ladder of perfection until we reach the virtue of piety and the resurrection. As it is written, “Who is the pious man? The one who shows himself to be pious towards his Creator” (Zohar Mishpatim 114b; Pinchas 222b). G-d stands by his side and watches over him, and He helps him to climb the rungs and to elevate himself ever higher.