The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
The Vision of the Ladder
Dr. Shaul Regev
Interdepartmental Division of Judaica Studies
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro
The Torah describes Jacob's departure from Beersheba and the dream he has in the course of his journey towards Haran: "He had a dream and - behold - he saw a ladder whose foot was planted on the earth and whose head reached heavenwards. Angels of God were ascending and descending along the steps, and God was standing at the top of the ladder . . . ." (Genesis xxviii:12-13). As we all know, the stories in the Torah do not merely recount events; these stories also contain a concealed deep level of meaning which transcends the events of the narrative. The commentators are divided as to the symbolical meaning of the story of Jacob's dream. Let us take a closer look at this issue basing ourselves on Maimonides and his interpreters.
At several points in his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides makes indirect references to Jacob's vision. In the introduction to the Guide, Maimonides discusses the importance of the parable in the Bible and notes that one of the forms of the Biblical parable is represented by Jacob's dream, in which each detail and each word is significant. According to Maimonides, seven different topics are included in the two verses quoted above. Since he does not specify these topics, his interpreters try to expand his comments and to explain what he is alluding to. In his commentary on this passage in the Guide, Ha'efodi provides us with an interesting insight. In his view, Maimonides is referring to three major principles, which Jacob learned through this vision:
A. In the creation of the world, there is a continuous evolution from the divine source of creation and the last of the creatures created. The unity of the world is symbolized by the ladder, in which the individual rungs together make up the whole, and constitute the entire ladder. The individual rung has no meaning in itself and only derives meaning as a part of the whole. In the complete structure, each rung is important in the construction of the whole. The ladder is a parable of the world, which was created by God and which links every component in that world to God. Each component is an integral part of a single context. In the world God has created each and every component has a unique meaning and role.
B. Knowledge, in terms of its content, is divided into two elements. The first element is knowledge of what is above us, knowledge concerning God, metaphysics, mystical matters. This form of knowledge, which constitutes an ascent, is the goal of all human beings and is vital for the fulfillment of their role as human beings. The second element, which is a descent, is knowledge of and involvement with the material world. To obtain such knowledge, angels must abandon heaven and descend in the direction of earth. As far as the human individual is concerned, this kind of knowledge cannot be a goal in itself but is rather an unavoidable rung on the ladder leading towards attainment of the second - and much more important - kind of knowledge.
C. God is at the head of the ladder, and He directs the entire universe. Awareness of this truth is a vital stage in the human being's striving towards knowledge as he ascends from knowledge of the material world to the recognition of the existence of God, and His control of the world.
Rabbi Shem Tov takes a slightly different approach. In his view, Jacob's vision teaches us an important lesson about all parts of the world including the lowliest creatures, demonstrates how all these parts are linked to a divine source, namely, God Himself. Shem Tov points out that God is "above the ladder", in contrast with the angels who are described as being literally "within" the ladder. Everything that exists - from the foot of the ladder (representing the earth and the basic elements constituting the earth) to the top of the ladder are situated at the level of a single reality, which, nonetheless, contains the hierarchy of cause and effect. On the other hand, God, Who is above the ladder, is at the level of a different reality. God is the primary cause, the primary Mover, Who creates the second reality, which is totally separated from the other level of reality. God does not regard the ladder as being part of His being nor does He see Himself as climbing up and down the ladder. He is above the ladder and He turns that ladder into a reality.
In a similar fashion, Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel explains Maimonides' words, following Shem Tov's general orientation, Abarbanel adds what he considers to be the most important element in Jacob's vision: the element of perception. Our ability to arrive at knowledge of reality in its entirety, from the humblest foundations of our world to the existence of its Divine Creator. God is the primary reason, the source of all existing things, and not a primeval world, which supposedly existed from eternity. Abarbanel also provides a more detailed interpretation of the relationships between the various components in Jacob's dream.
Elsewhere in the Guide (p. 8b, section 15), Maimonides again refers to Jacob's ladder. Here again, the dream is not the main focus of the discussion but is rather brought in to illustrate a point - in this case, the different connotations of the verbal root YTZV, from which the word "nitzav" (literally: stands) appearing in the Hebrew text of the biblical narrative is derived. In Maimonides' opinion, one of the connotations of this root is "existence," especially whenever the verb is associated with God. Thus, the basic meaning of the phrase, "God is standing (nitzav) at the top of the ladder," is "God exists". In this passage, Maimonides adds a dimension ignored by all of his interpreters, that is, the issue of prophecy. Unlike his interpreters, Maimonides regards the "angels" of God in the dream as the prophets who ascend the steps of knowledge in order to obtain the power of prophecy and who subsequently descend in order to convey their prophecies to their society. Some of the above interpreters note the ambivalence in Maimonides' words and attempt to reconcile the self-contradictory passages. Shem Tov places prophets and philosophers in the same category and thereby implies that, like the ancient prophets, philosophers fulfill a political role by providing good counsel.
In a more detailed manner, Abrabanel notes the differences between Maimonides' comments in the introduction and his words in the above passage. In, his opinion, Maimonides changed his position on some of the points he raised in the introduction, and tightens the link between the biblical text and his comments in the later text. Thus, for example, the prophets take here the place of the divine beings, i.e. the angels. For as far as the angels are concerned, it would have been more understandable if the biblical text had indicated that they first descended then ascended the ladder, since the angels dwell in the heavens and, in order to begin climbing the ladder, must first descend to earth. On the other hand, if one is speaking about prophets, it is much more natural to have them ascend first in order to obtain wisdom and the power of prophecy and then to have them descend in order to transmit their spiritual knowledge to others.
In his book, Aqedat Yitzhak (=The Sacrifice of Isaac), Rabbi Yitzhak Arama sums up Maimonides' words in a lengthy passage. Jacob dreams because he wants to obtain knowledge. The stones Jacob takes from the immediate surroundings are the true assumptions we must all possess, the material axioms of our existence, the widespread truths that are common knowledge to all humans. Each piece of such knowledge is a stone, and, according to the midrash, all of the stones merged to form a single stone. In Arama's view, the merging of the stones means: the separate bits of knowledge cease to exist in isolation, contradicting each other. Instead, they coalesce into a single, harmonious body of knowledge. At this point in the biblical narrative, Jacob's dream serves to supplement the bits of information he had gathered before going to sleep. In his dream, Jacob sees the true unity of all reality and of all pieces of information and also perceives the secret of their emanation from heaven. This is one of the mysteries of the ladder, which unites earth - the material world - and heaven - the spiritual world. Like Maimonides, Arama interprets the phrase "angels of God" as "human beings".
However, whereas Maimonides sees the descent (of the "angels") as symbolizing the act of bringing down knowledge to the masses, Arama regards both the ascent and descent as a symbol of the acquisition of knowledge. We ascend the ladder of wisdom and, using our powers of human intellect, we reach the top of the ladder. On reaching this level, we receive true knowledge through divine revelation and it is with this knowledge that we descend earthwards. We acquire the truth through our intellect in an upward-moving process, as we proceed from the last beings of God's creations, from those which surround us, to those beings, which were created earlier, i.e. to the spiritual world. On reaching the final station, we receive, through divine revelation, knowledge concerning the true emanation, which proceeds downwards, from the spiritual world to the plane of the material world. This is the true and direct path towards recognition of our reality.
Arama's interpretation has been introduced here to separate Abarbanel's position as an interpreter of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed from Abarbanel's position as a biblical commentator. In his interpretations of biblical passages, Abarbanel adopted an approach that was quite different from the one he used in explicating the Guide. As a biblical commentator, Abarbanel attacks the Maimonides school of thought, which saw the vision in terms of the acquisition of knowledge. If God wanted Jacob to learn about reality and its divine source, why, asks Abarbanel, does God choose this particular moment and this particular location to provide such teaching? Why did God not show Jacob the vision of the ladder when he was getting his education, and what is the connection between the dream and everything that preceded it, namely, the "theft" of Isaac's blessing and the escape from the hands of Esau?
In Abarbanel's view, all of the above events are interconnected and we must understand the dream within the context of these events. It is quite possible, notes Abarbanel, that Jacob had second thoughts about what he had done in his father's home, especially now that he was being hotly pursued by his brother Esau. Perhaps, Jacob was beginning to have doubts about the benefit he had derived from stealing Isaac's blessings. Accordingly, God causes Jacob to arrive at this precise spot and to dream the vision of the ladder, because every detail in the vision is linked to the events Jacob has just been involved in. In this way, God seeks to strengthen Jacob's spirit (see also the commentary of Rabbi Shem Tov, who explains the purpose of the dream in a similar fashion).
According to Abarbanel, Jacob spent the night on Mount Moriah, which is both the future site of the Temple and the Gate of Heaven (see also Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer, chapters 20 and 35). The purpose of the dream is to show Jacob that God intends to fulfill all of the promises contained in Isaac's blessings. The ladder is an allusion to the construction on this site of the Temple, which will serve as a kind of ladder making the prayers of the Jewish people ascend to heaven. The ladder is planted on the earth, on the site of the Temple's Holiest of Holies, and its top reaches heaven, the source of the divine emanation descending earthward. The angels of God ascending and descending the ladder are actual angels whose role is: "They ascend together with the scent of the sacrifices and with the prayers of the worshippers in this place [i.e., the Temple] and they descend earthwards in order to rescue the worshippers and to provide them with blessings." Abarbanel further notes that God's promises allude to the fulfillment of all of the blessings Jacob received from his father.
Summing up Abarbanel's commentary here, we can see that he has shifted the location of Jacob's vision from Beit El to Mount Moriah, the site of the Temple. In his view, the dream is connected to Mount Moriah, a unique site destined to be the location of the Temple, and has nothing to do with the abstract idea of acquiring knowledge through prophecy or through intellectual investigation.
In conclusion to this article, I should like to introduce the comments of two less celebrated rabbinical scholars whose views differ from those presented here. In his book of biblical sermons, Toldot Yitzhak, Rabbi Yitzhak Karo offers five different interpretations of Jacob's vision. Some of these interpretations adopt the line we have observed in Maimonides' exegesis and in the exegesis of his interpreters, namely, the vision alludes to the unity of all creatures and to the supremacy of God, Who controls the world through the two levels of knowledge, etc.. However, one can also note another kind of orientation in Karo's commentary. The third interpretation Karo offers with regard to the ladder refers to the human individual. The ladder alludes to the human individual: the top of the ladder represents his upper, spiritual, dimension, while the foot of the ladder represents his lower, physical, body. The angels ascending and descending the ladder symbolize the two options man has: if he aspires heavenwards, he can reach God who stands at the top of the ladder, but, if he aspires earthwards, he descends to the level of the material world.
According to Karo, there is another meaning here: the lofty status of the Land of Israel, which is subject to God's direct supervision. Although God supervises the entire world and although everything in this world is derived from His unity, this kind of supervision is indirect in nature, whereas the Land of Israel and the Jewish people are directly supervised by Him. Karo links this point with mysticism, particularly with the mystical symbolism of both the Jubilee Year (the 50th year) and the number 50, which falls outside the 7-year cycles of shmita i.e. of laying the land fallow (every seventh year). Since it supplements the 7-year cycles and initiates a new cycle of counting, the number 50 has a unique value. This unique value, which is directly connected to the concept of God, relates also to the Land of Israel and, consequently, to the idea of the Chosen People and to God's direct supervision of the Jewish people.
In his commentary on the Scriptures, Ba'alei Brit Avram, Rabbi Avraham Azulai continues along the lines of Karo's orientation. Azulai sees the entire vision as an allusion to the Land of Israel's lofty status. The ladder, which is suspended in the air, encompasses the Land of Israel and reaches upward towards God, Who stands at the top of the ladder and Who supervises everything taking place in the Land of Israel. The angels of God ascending and descending the ladder are those angels who accompany the human individual. The descending angels are those who accompany the individual outside the Land of Israel and they ascend when that individual reaches the Land of Israel and enters its unique atmosphere, which is the area of the ladder. The ladder is a border that is suspended in the air and which separates the holy Land of Israel from the world outside, the profane world of the other nations.
In his book of biblical exegesis, Olat Tamid, Rabbi Moshe Albilada explains that the goal of the vision was to provide, through divine revelation, knowledge that Jacob was unable to attain through his intellect. Jacob understood by himself that the special divine supervision of the Land of Israel is by virtue of both the Temple worship and the sacrifices offered by the priests. What Jacob found difficult to understand was the preference God assigns in his supervision of a single place on earth - the Land of Israel. Accordingly, Jacob concludes, on awakening: "Truly, God is in this place" - that is, more so than in any other place.
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