In this week’s Torah reading we are told of our forefather Jacob who, fleeing from his brother Esau, stops in Bethel to spend the night there. While sleeping, he sees a vision of a ladder stretching from the earth to the heavens, with celestial angels climbing and descending the ladder.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a great Jewish leader and kabbalist at the turn of the 19th century, writes that in this vision, Jacob was taught a profound lesson: He was shown that he, himself a mortal human, was really a towering figure stretching to the heavens, whose every action determined even the activities of the angels.
And it wasn’t just about Jacob, adds Rabbi Chaim: This idea holds true for each and every one of us as well.
Though we may think we are unimportant and that our deeds are insignificant, in reality we serve as the linchpin which holds together all of creation, from the earth to the heavens — and even the angels in heaven are impacted by the things we do and the choices we make.
Perhaps there is an additional lesson here as well. Up to this point Jacob had been comfortably ensconced in the home of his father, Isaac, living without any cares. But henceforth Jacob was to enter a new chapter in his life. He would encounter hardships and challenges at every step, and his relative, Laban, would attempt to trick him and defraud him numerous times.
It would have been easy for Jacob to succumb to despair, to give up in the face of all the difficulties. That is why the Almighty sent him a powerful message at this moment: It is precisely at times like these, when we’re beset by challenges, that the choices we make, and the effort we put into doing things right, are most important. In fact, Jacob’s most productive period in terms of spiritual growth would occur at this time, when he had to keep strong to maintain his faith and his beliefs, and not allow his personal goals to be undermined.
This is a recurring theme that we encounter with numerous great figures in Scripture. Moses had a speech defect. David was scorned and looked down upon by his brothers. Each of these individuals confronted their challenges, and undeterred they resolutely followed their chosen path to accomplish their goals. Each became a heroic figure whose living example illuminates our own path to this very day.
It was to be a long and hard road ahead, but at the beginning of his journey Jacob was shown the image of the ladder along with its message: This very moment, as he began to confront the obstacles in his life, he was being offered the opportunity to climb to great heights. And so too with each of us as we face our own challenges. We too may find comfort in the image of the ladder, which tells us of the road ahead, which won’t be easy, but which will provide us with opportunities to grow and become better people. PJC
Rabbi Levi Langer is the dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.