As a kid, I loved to play "cat's cradle," the game with a piece of string with the ends tied together. You start with the string around your hands and then interlace it between your fingers to make different patterns with names describing what they look like. The game can be played alone or with a partner, where one sets up the string and the next takes it from the other's hands in a way that creates a new pattern. Then it is returned again to the first person in some other pattern. Cat's eye was always the easiest pattern and the one everyone went for first. But the difficult design to create was "Jacob's ladder."
This ladder is a powerful symbol; its image and name "Jacob's ladder" shows up in all kinds of places. I have always been struck by the idea that the ladder is named for Jacob, even though it doesn't really belong to him. He dreamt of it, but it seems to me it is more accurately God's ladder, as God created it; or perhaps it is the angels' ladder, as they are the ones ascending and descending it in continuous motion. Regardless of who actually owns it, the symbol of a ladder that connects heaven to earth is clearly one that captures imaginations.
Our portion opens with Jacob on the run from his brother Esau. Jacob has tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for his brother, and now Esau is looking to kill him. Both Rebekah and Isaac tell Jacob to go to Haran, the home of his uncle Laban, and to find a wife there, rather than marrying a local Canaanite woman. On his way, Jacob stops for the night at "a [certain] place" (Genesis 28:11). He uses a stone for a pillow and falls asleep. Then he has this powerful dream:
He dreamed, and lo-a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo-angels of God going up and coming down on it. And lo-the Eternal stood up above it, and said, "I the Eternal, am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you" (Genesis 28:12?15).
Gematria gives the interesting correlation between ladder (sulam) and Sinai. Both words, sulam and Sinai, have a numeric value of one hundred and thirty. The number one hundred and thirty in itself is meaningless, but when two words have the same value, gematria teaches that their meanings are similar.1 Thus Jacob's ladder is a symbol of Sinai or a prediction about Sinai. Vayikra Rabbah (29:2) teaches that Jacob sees the princes of various enemies of the future Israelite people rising and falling on the ladder, predicting their future power and loss of power over Israel. Then God tells Jacob that he too will ascend the ladder, but when Jacob grows fearful that he too will descend, God tells him, " 'Fear not, O Jacob My servant' (Jeremiah 30:10). Though you go up, you will never experience a coming down." This vision then is not so much a prediction of the experience at Sinai, but rather a promise from God that Jacob's power will always be rising, and that God controls who comes up and who goes down.
There is a simple explanation for this story. The ladder is exactly what it looks like, a bridge connecting heaven and earth, and the angels acting as God's messengers regularly ascend and descend. Thus Jacob was given an insight into how the heavens function, and seeing the system he then would understand that God's promise is true. That God can fulfill the promise made to Jacob.
It feels to me though that this ladder means more. A ladder on its own calls out for climbing. Put a ladder or stairs that lead somewhere or nowhere in front of a child, and he or she will have an instinctive need to climb it. The structure of a ladder architecturally is very simple and very strong: it holds itself together. The pattern of a ladder is so interesting that we try to recreate it out of string between our hands. It feels as though this ladder is not just for the angels to climb, it calls to us to climb it as well.
A story is told (P'skita D'Rav Kahana, B'reishit Rabbah 68:4) of a Roman noblewoman who asks Rabbi Yose ben Halafta what God has been doing since completing the creation of the world. Rabbi Berekhiah says that Rabbi Yose tells her, "The Holy One, blessed be He, has been busy making ladders, having this one ascend and that one descend, lifting this one up and putting that one down. [In short, He has been judging mankind]."2
I believe this ladder is so interesting, not just because of its symbolic predictions of the future, but because it calls to us, it begs us to climb its heights. It may be a tool that God uses to judge us, but it is not God who draws us up and pushes us down, it is we who choose each rung to climb, and it is we who pull ourselves up to each new height. The work requires strength and will, and the reward is too far away for us to see, but the desire to climb is a part of our very beings.
- Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law, S. Y. Agnon (Shmuel Yosef Agnon), Michael Swirsky, trans., Judah Goldin introduction (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994) p. 158
- Translation included in brackets from The Book of Legends, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, trans. William Braude, citing B'reishit Rabbah 68:4 (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), p. 510)
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.