Jacob’s Ladder

One of the most well known biblical images comes from this week’s parsha. “Jacob’s Ladder” is an image described in the Torah as the vision Yakov had while in flight away from his brother Esav on his way to the house of Lavan to marry and build the Jewish people. “This ladder had its head in the heavens and its foot was firmly set on the earth. There were angels of G-d ascending and descending the ladder”. What is this vision teaching us? What are the various symbols and what do they mean to us today in our lives?

The Zohar expounds on the vision of Yakov, “and G-d breathed into man’s nostrils a living soul”, this is referring to the entire spiritual identity of a person. “And Yakov dreamed and he saw a vision of a ladder”, this ladder is certainly referring to the soul of man. Rav Chaim of Voloszin takes the imagery one step further by adding that “the angels of G-d were ascending and descending” refers to the power of the human soul. All of the physical and spiritual worlds and the ministering angels that were created and set in place to administer them are all caused to “ascend” – come closer to G-d, and “descend” – become distant form G-d as a function of the actions and behavior of man.

According to this Yakov is having a vision in which he is able to see the reality of the power of his soul and how it affects the entire universe. Yakov was a great man and he was surely capable of having such a vision, but why now and why in these circumstances? What specifically is G-d trying to communicate to Yakov at this juncture in his life that will aid him in his achievement of his purpose in the world? Let us examine Yakov’s life until this point. He was born into the home of Yitzchak and Rivkah two towering spiritual giants. He was an “Ish Tam” – a complete person, and he loved to sit and learn Torah from a very young age. He used cleverness when he needed to receive the blessings from his father but within the controlled environment of his own home and at the guidance of his mother. This is now the very first time Yakov has been away from home. He is “stepping into the real world”. What better and more appropriate time to learn the greatest and most important facet of wisdom that a man could ever achieve that of knowing and understanding oneself.

Getting Started on the Right Foot

On his way into the “real world” Yakov made a very important stop. Our sages teach us that he made a stop to learn in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever two great prophets and scholars of the day. At first glance this seems a bit of a strange thing to do. Yakov has been learning in Yeshiva for his whole life. Why should he need to spend fourteen years learning there now? In light of the flow of the parsha it seems that the answer is clear. There are two types of learning Torah. One type of learning is characterized by deep penetrating analysis of the pure theory of the laws. This process involves tireless clarification and refinement until the principles are clear in their purist form. Another type of learning involves the application of the laws of the Torah to actual situations. This process involves taking the principles derived during the first type of learning and learning how to correctly apply them to reality by clarifying the actual nature of the situation. In this type of learning the main focal point is not the law but the world we live in. In order for a Torah scholar to be complete in every sense he has to have both a profound, deep, and penetrating understanding of the laws of the Torah as well as an equally piercing and accurate knowledge of the world and of human nature. If a person has the first title he is still considered a great scholar. However the perfection of the scholar can only be achieved through the second part of the process as well. Our sages teach us that “any judge who levies a totally true verdict becomes a partner with Hashem in creation”. The Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Mishlei explains that the words “a totally true verdict” are strange. This is the hint that there are these two types of learning. A judge can be considered very great if he’s capable of clarifying the law of the Torah in its purest form. However without understanding the actual matter at hand as well as the litigants and their claims and the nature of these people to the extent where he can hear whether one is bending the truth or hiding information and why, he can’t correctly apply the law. When a judge achieves both of these levels he becomes a partner with Hashem in creation. Nachmanides explains that this is why the Torah refers to judges as “Elohim” – a word that is also used in the Torah as one of Hashem’s names.

For the first years of his life Yakov was involved in the clarification of the laws in their purist form. Now that he is heading to the house of Lavan and going out into the “real world” to build a family and support them he has to learn for fourteen years to achieve the second qualification. Only this will carry him through this difficult task ahead. The Torah is the only code of law in the world that mandates and commands its adherents to learn as a religious obligation. It is the obligation of every Jew to use their minds, and learn. This is a duty no less than any other law in the Torah, actually it is the greatest obligation. As the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avot “And Torah study is equal in importance to all of the other mitzvoth put together”. We need to study the Torah and we need to understand how to apply it to our lives. This was G-d’s will when He gave the Torah. Yakov is our role model in this matter. He did it first, and he did it the best.

Poverty or Death

Just outside of town on his way to Charan Yakov meets up with Elifaz the son of Esav. Elifaz was sent to kill Yakov. Yakov pleads for his life at the hands of Elifaz and offers him a compromise, all of his money in return for his life. Our sages teach us that “someone who is penniless is considered as if he is dead”. In this way Yakov was able to save himself but is left with nothing but his staff in his hand. As he says later in life “for with my staff [and nothing else] I crossed this Jordan river”. In this manner Yakov started his journey out into the world. His very first taste of independence left him penniless. He now has to fend for himself. His only choice is to hire himself out to work for a living in order to survive. The journey to the house of Lavan is leading him straight down that path. The one thing he has going for him is that the G-d given blessings of spiritual and material completion trail behind him on his journey.

Two Wives for the Price of Two

As a penniless traveler Yakov arrives in Charan at the house of Lavan. There he meets Rachel a young maiden who on his lofty level he immediately recognizes as his soul mate. He is lead home to her father Lavan and negotiates a deal to work as a hired hand shepherding the flocks of Lavan. He is to work for seven years and thus he will accrue enough money to afford the customary gifts of betrothal. Yakov attempts to put all that he has learned about the world and human nature to the task in protecting himself from the scheming Lavan. He makes sure that the agreement is for “Rachel Bitcha Haketana” – Rachel, your daughter, the little one”. He understands that he needs to be extremely cautious in his dealings if he hopes to emerge successful in this endeavor. The seven years pass as if a matter of days, and the fateful wedding night arrives. The one thing that Yakov could never have accounted for was the act of pure selflessness that happened that night. Lavan switches Rachel for Leah and rather than allow her sister to be embarrassed Rachel tells over to Leah the special code word that only she and Yakov know to verify her identity in the dark of the night. And Yakov awoke in the morning and behold it was Leah. He is then forced to negotiate another seven years contract with Lavan in order to be able to marry Rachel.

How are we meant to view this story? Was it Lavan who tricked Yakov? Not at all, possibly the greatest act of selflessness in Jewish history is seemingly to blame for the fact that Yakov now has two wives instead of one. However, at a deeper level there are more fundamental reasons why Yakov has two wives. In those days there was a famous prophecy that had circulated for some time in these circles. The prophecy foretold that the two sons of Yitzchak were to wed the two daughter of Lavan, the older to the older and the younger to the younger. This would have paired Yakov with Rachel and Esav with Leah. It is for this very reason that “the eyes of Leah were soft [from tears]”. She did not want to be the match for Esav. Was there some slip up? Was the prophecy just hot air? Not at all, our mystical writings teach us that in fact it was at the point in time in last weeks parsha when Esav forfeited his natural position in Hashem’s plan to be the manager and administrator of the physical realm, that Yakov assumed this role as well as his natural role of managing and administrating over the spiritual realm. As a result the woman who was meant to actualize Esav’s potential in his original role, Leah, in fact now was destined to marry Yakov. Hashem could have arranged this in any number of ways. The beauty of the manner in which he chose to do so was by allowing Rachel the opportunity to merit one of the loftiest levels ever achieved by a woman in this world.

The question left to deal with is why does the fact that Yakov now has two roles instead of one warrant having two wives? The answer can only be found in exploring what the purpose of a marriage is in the first place. Why did G-d design the world in such a way? The Ohr Hachayim sheds light on this in his comments on the verse “lo tov heyos ha’adam levado” this verse is typically translated to mean “it is not good for man to be alone”. The Ohr Hachayim points out that this can not be the true intention of the verse. Man was not at all lonely in his original form. Our sages teach that originally man and woman were one physically and spiritually conjoined being. This was the being about which G-d said on the sixth day “And G-d saw all that He had created and behold it was very good”. The Ramban says that “very good” means in the objective and ultimate sense. Thus the verse really means to say “it is not good for a man to be perfect, therefore I will separate the female aspect from the male aspect so that she may be a help mate for him”. Man was originally made perfect and then made imperfect by separating the female from the male. There are two fundamental questions to face at this point. One is that if it isn’t good for man to be perfect as one conjoined being, then why did G-d make him that way in the first place, only to separate him and make him imperfect afterwards? The second question is what does being “separate male or female forms” or alternatively “together as one conjoined being” have to do with being perfect or imperfect?

The Ohr Hachayim explains that man was originally created perfect so that he would have a tangible sense of what it means to be perfect. This “inner tuning fork” buried deep in the recesses of the human soul will help him find his way in life and he will have a sense of whether his path in life is getting him closer or further away from perfection if he chooses to tune into the depth of his own soul. He explains further in dealing with the second question that when the male and female aspects of Adam were conjoined as one, the being called Adam was impervious to sin. The male and female aspects were able to work together in such a harmonious way without misunderstanding or miscommunication and thus he was able to achieve his full potential without any weakness or vulnerability that his “other half” would provide for him.

This is the function of every marriage. The man and the woman should find favor in one another’s eyes. They should be oriented towards growing and helping each other grow. In this way they are striving in marriage to get back to that unity of being that was experienced originally by Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden. Each subsequent marriage should be imbued with the same goals and aspirations as the very first one. This is why the Jewish custom at a wedding is to say the amongst the blessings “bring yourselves to rejoice you beloved companions just like The One who originally formed you brought you to rejoice in the Garden of Eden”. The joy of marriage is the joy of reaching and striving for perfection. Each couple has their specific contribution to make in the world. Now we can make the application to this parsha. When Yakov gained a new mission in the world he gained a new wife. The soul and body of Rachel were designed to bring out Yakov’s potential to manage and administer the spiritual realm. Now that he has to manage and administer the physical realm as well he needs Leah in body and soul to bring out that potential. Each of us must also come to realize that we are not merely floating through life. Getting married and building a family are matters that are deeply rooted in the essence of each person’s purpose in this world. Let us learn from Yakov how the spouse we choose has to fit our role in this world, and not merely meet our more superficial standards!

A Nation Builder

The Torah presents the pertinent facts about Yakov’s home life. His wives became pregnant and bore children to him. The Torah mentions the naming of each child and any unique circumstances leading to the conception or the marital relationship associated with the birth of each child. Yakov’s wives seem to be competing for who has more children. G-d is involved in balancing some sort of cosmic equation in determining which children are born to which wife and when. The whole presentation is very unique in its literary form. The commentators point out that the Torah wants us to be exposed to the lofty plane upon which Yakov and his wives resided while they were bearing and raising children. The Rabbeinu Bachayeh points out that even the seeming conflicts and friction amongst the wives and the women with Yakov were all strictly for the sake of heaven. The mundane aspects of life did not exist as separate experiences devoid of spirituality. Along with their obvious holiness and lofty spiritual character, it was also this kavanah – intention, that transformed what they were doing from “having kids” to “nation building”. The Mishnah says in Pirkei Avot “And all of your actions should be for the sake of heaven”. Even when we are involved in the seemingly mundane aspects of life we should add in the kavanah that this is for the sake of heaven, it helps to transform what we are doing and give it additional aspects of holiness. There is an old story that illustrates this point. Three men were all commissioned to work for the government to build a hospital. Someone came along and asked each one of them what they were doing. The first one answered “I am digging ditches”, the second said “I am making money”, and the third exclaimed “I am building a hospital”. They were all involved in the same activity but the way they looked at themselves and their overall role and contribution in the activity transformed their experience completely. Ditch diggers tend to remain ditch diggers. Money makers tend to remain money makers. Hospital builders tend to remain hospital builders. We can change our perspective on what we are doing. Expanding our consciousness and growing leads us to have a deeper and deeper appreciation for what we are really doing in this world.

A Strange Time to Leave

After the birth of Yosef, the eleventh son of Yakov, the verse says “and it was when Rachel bore Yosef and Yakov said to Lavan send me on my way and I will go to [my proper] position and [then] to my land”. The Netziv translates the verse this way and understands it to mean that Yakov was asking to return to his proper position meaning that he wants to become independent and autonomous. He no longer wants to work for Lavan in any capacity. Why precisely at the time when Yosef is born does Yakov feel the need to become independent and break away from Lavan? What does one thing have to do with another?

The Midrash says that Yakov had a deep understanding of the purpose of each one of his children in the world. When Yosef was born he saw a vision “the house of Yakov is like the colas of the fire, the house of Yosef is the flame, and the house of Esav is like straw. Now that Yosef was born he Yakov knows that the adversary of Esav is in the world and he can face Esav. Yakov was equipped to deal with Lavan on his own, but he knew that without Yosef he couldn’t overcome the challenge of Esav. What is the deeper message the Torah is teaching us here?

Working for a Living

The answer lies in understanding more about what the Torah has to say about being an employee. The Talmud says that a waged laborer is allowed to leave his work in the middle of the job even if the employer will have to hire other workers to finish the job. The verse to support this is “For to me are the children of Israel they are my servants” the Talmud expounds they are my servants and not servants to other servants. How powerful is the responsibility and connection of a worker to his employer, the only power that can override this responsibility is one’s more primary responsibility to serve as a servant must to his Creator. On some level a person who hires himself out is beholding to his boss. What is the reason for this? Is it merely a matter of honor and decency to be a trustworthy and loyal employee or is there more to it than that? Lavan with his scheming and twisted mind comes to Yakov after everything that transpired between them and says “The daughters [your wives] are my daughters, and their sons [your children] are my sons, the flocks of sheep are mine, and everything that you possess is all mine”. The Malbim explains that Lavan was saying that he gave Yakov his start. Yakov may have built upon that original investment but by virtue of the fact that the startup was generated by Lavan he felt that he was entitled to ownership over all of it. Obviously this is a warping of the proper perspective that an employer should have towards the benefits he derives from the labor of his employee but there is still a granule of truth to Lavan’s claim. The teaching of the Talmud above also indicates this by saying that ultimately a person is only a servant of Hashem and no other being.

When Yosef was born Yakov began to feel the full impact of the shortcoming of being beholding to someone else. He didn’t part ways with Lavan because he just got sick of him and didn’t want to have to put up with his constant schemes, nor did he part ways because he felt he could become wealthier if he was working on his own. The reason he had to break away is because he couldn’t achieve his true purpose and his potential while under the bidding of another no matter how insignificant it was at that point. Yakov had to separate from Lavan so that he could build “the House of Yakov”. This was his vision. The house of Yakov is like the coals of a fire, the house of Yosef is like the flame that shoots off from the coals. Only as an independent could Yakov reach this state.

The Wall of Holiness

In the end Lavan vows to leave Yakov alone on the condition that Yakov is willing to agree that he or his descendents will not harm Lavan or his descendents, and on condition that Yakov will vow not to marry other women other than his daughters thus ensuring their security. Yakov agrees to this covenant and then erects a single stone alter and instructs his sons to build a wall symbolizing the covenant that he made with Lavan. Lavan then calls the wall “yagar sahadusah” – the wall of testimony in Aramaic and Yakov calls it “Galed” – the witnessing rock. The Torah then says that Yakov and Lavan ate a meal on the wall. Why does the Torah record the fact that Lavan gave the wall an Aramaic name and Yakov gave it a Hebrew name? What could possibly be the importance knowing that they ate a meal on the wall? Rav Yonason Eibeshitz in his famous work Yaros Dvash offers an approach to this famous question. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches that before eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil Adam spoke Hebrew, but afterwards he spoke Aramaic. Aramaic is a mixed language, it is based on Hebrew the pure holy tongue the letters of which were used to create the universe, but the negativity and impurity in the world got mixed in to it through the sin of eating from the tree. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah adds that due to its impurity the ministering angels don’t recognize individual prayers in Aramaic and do not take them up to the heavens. Lavan was trying to pull Yakov even at the last second over to the side of negativity. By naming the wall in Aramaic and inviting Yakov to eat on the wall he wanted to infuse this “shade of negativity” into the covenant itself in much the same way that the serpent did to Adam and Chava.

The message that comes out of this last passage in essence ties the whole parsha together. Yakov was a very lofty and towering spiritual giant. He had a mission in this world. That mission could only be accomplished by getting out there into the real world of marriage, pursuing a career, raising children and everything else that one has to do in the post Garden of Eden world. Yakov, whom we are meant to learn from as our forefather, taught us how to do it right. He never allowed himself to get drawn in. The physical and material world has a connection to the branch of negativity and evil in creation. Everywhere we turn there is a draw and a pull both internally and externally towards this direction. We can’t reach our life’s mission without getting fully involved in the thick of it all. When we set out to “build our house and our nation”, the Lavan’s of the world, the marketing agents of the negativity, are always there in everything we do right down to eating a sandwich for lunch. We have to raise ourselves beyond the mundane. We have to add in the kavanah of the Mishnah in Avot “and all of your actions shall be for the sake of heaven”. This is our wall of holiness. The study of Torah inculcates this ability into a person if it is done properly. With proper vision and ongoing sacrifice we can achieve our true potential. Through this constant direction we can overcome challenges and protect ourselves, while we climb our spiritual ladders and reach for the stars.