In my opinion, the most powerful visual image in our Tanach is Ya’akov’s Ladder. It’s, of course, one of the most common motifs for artists. Actually, the Marc Chagall iteration of the scene was in the news last year when it was sold at auction in Tel Aviv, curiously it had been stolen in 1996, and only reappeared in 2015 in the Jerusalem attic of a recently deceased woman. However, it’s also the name of an electric phenomenon, many geographic sites, a movie in 1990, a rock song by Rush (I have no idea who they are, but the song is nice), a Challa shape popular on Erev Yom Kippur, and, believe it or not, a folk music festival in the Galil. You can go next June 11, but all the local accommodations are sold out. I checked. So, for the first time in a few years, I will explore with you some ideas about the significance of this potent symbol.
In Jewish tradition, there are a few famous attempts to identify the nature of the SULAM, which we normally translate as ‘ladder’, but Alter prefers ‘ramp’. JPS has ‘stairway’. One Christian translation (ISV) has ‘elevated highway’, maybe like New Jersey’s Pulaski Skyway, but attractive.
Many view the SULAM as a stand-in for some other Biblical image. Because the dream takes place over the site of the future Beit HaMikdash, there are those who assert that the SULAM is the ramp leading up to the MIZBEACH. However, because the GEMATRIA of SULAM equals Sinai, some authorities believe that the ladder between our realm and OLAM HaBA is the Torah, given at Sinai. Others look at our verse and notice a potential grammatical ambiguity, the verse says, ‘And behold, God’s angels are ascending and descending upon it (BO, Breishit 28:12). Maybe the correct translation of BO is him. Ya’akov, and, by extension, his descendants are, or can be, the SULAM. I guess we’re extension ladders.
All of that is fine, and everyone can choose the option they prefer, perhaps changing from year to year. But here’s my problem with many interpreters, both Jewish and Gentile. They view the SULAM as a connector between this realm and the next. Even though that has some merit, it’s not the point. If the SULAM were only an interface or a doorway, then a bridge would have worked better than a ladder. The Sulam demands an ascent on the part of the participant.
Whichever metaphor one chooses, the point isn’t that there is a magical portal. The whole significance of the SULAM is that we need a vehicle or mechanism for our desperate desire to ascend towards God and the holy, to achieve D’VEYKUT (proximity/intimacy with God). The Rambam and other philosophers tend to understand the SULAM as describing human intellectual or philosophic powers to comprehend this world. Okay, but, ultimately, it’s God at the top, not a super computer. We’re discussing spiritual attainments, and those cerebral tools are just another vehicle for the real goal of immediacy to God.
But I think that there’s still more to the image. Reb Yitzchak Levi of Berditchev, the Kedushat Levi, described the scene a bit differently than most observers, and provides a distinct, perhaps offbeat, perspective. He notes, ‘the vision represented human beings who, though standing on earth, focus on the heavens. Man’s understanding of the celestial regions and what they stand for is based on his service of the Lord.’
The Rebbe goes on to explain that spirituality and sanctity in this earthly realm depend on humanity’s devotion and focus on God. He then concludes: Yaakov had become firmly established as a servant of God, he was granted an additional vision, ‘and here the Lord Himself was standing above the ladder.’ This vision refers to the MERKAVA of God, the Divine chariot, and Ya’akov became the MERKAVA, God’s vehicle for revelation in this world.
I believe strongly that the attempts to define the SULAM in terms of items other than a ladder is the advice of each commentary to help guide our climb to spiritual heights. The point isn’t the contrivance, rather it’s the endeavor. Life can be compared to a journey. It’s up to us whether this odyssey is just a crossing from one side to the other, merely back and forth, or an effort to improve the area we traverse. This can be done by constantly working to elevate the spirituality of our world. It’s worth the effort to climb and bring the whole world along for the ride.
We don’t want a magic carpet ride; we want a Sherpa to direct our burning passion to ascend towards proximity with the epicenter of our love: God. The vehicle also isn’t significant, just the struggle to go ever higher.