Parshat Vayetzei: He’s Building the Stairway to Heaven

“Shaken, Yaakov said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, this is the gateway to heaven,'” (Bereishit 28,17).

Yaakov’s dream and the image of the ladder is one of my favorites in the Book of Bereishit. Considering I live in Beit El, I’m probably just a little bit biased. But the vision of the ladder is one that teaches us not only about Yaakov himself, but about the unique spiritual path of the nation which will come from Yaakov, and ultimately you and I.

Before we discuss the symbolism of the ladder, there’s a strange detail in the story: Yaakov’s reaction after waking up from this incredible prophetic vision. Yaakov seemingly doesn’t relate to the content of the dream, nor to the Divine promises that God makes. Rather He says: “How awesome is this place!”

Seemingly he understands the place as the essential context for the dream of the ladder, and the Divine promises which were given afterwards. But why? What was it that he saw in the dream that led him to understand that the place he slept on was significant?

At the beginning of the parsha, Yaakov is a refugee traveling alone, forced to leave his home due to his brother Eisav’s murderous intentions. He is heading out on a months-long journey to the house of Lavan, someone who we’ve already characterized as highly problematic in Parshat Chayei Sara

As Yaakov leaves home, he travels north, and just as the sun is setting, he finds a place to spend the night. We only know from what happens later in the story that this place is a special place; but at this moment there is seemingly nothing significant or unique about the particular piece of ground.

But then, unexpectedly, Yaakov dreamed. A ladder to heaven appears, and angels are ascending and descending on this ladder. A  vision of the Divine appears over Yaakov, promising him and his offspring the land on which he is sleeping. In this time of darkness and fear of the unknown, God assured Yaakov: 

“I will be with you, and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will ensure that you return back to this very land. I will not leave you until I have done all these things for you,” Bereishit (28,15).

The God of Yaakov’s forefathers is no longer an abstraction; that God is now his God. And here is Yaakov’s reaction upon waking up: 

“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven,'”(Berashit 28,16-17).

Again, this seems strange. Why is he so enamored by the place?! What about, “How awesome is God!” or “What an incredible dream?!”

And indeed, after Yaakov wakes up, his first act is to erect a monument to the place, which he renamed Beit El. Only afterwards does he express his renewed personal relationship with God through the oath that he makes. 

So to go back to our question, why the emphasis on the place, and not on the promises?

It must be that the vision of the ladder itself teaches Yaakov about the sanctity of this space. But how? 

We are told that the ladder’s feet are firmly planted in the ground, and its head is in the heavens. Of course it is, could a ladder be otherwise? But this is what Yaakov understands from the dream: the heavens and the earth can be connected by sacred space. This is the fundamental concept of the Temple, that in a sacred space the spiritual can reside in the physical, and the physical can elevate to the spiritual. 

But why show Yaakov the concept of the Mikdash, of the Temple, now? It won’t be built for about another 1,000 years by King Shlomo!

We must begin with the end in mind. The Mikdash, the Temple,  appreciating that there can be a space that transcends the physical, is crucial to our national spiritual path. We are not deists, who believe God created the world and walked away. We don’t only believe in El Elyon, God on High. We believe that God desires a dwelling place in this cold, dark physical world. And equally important, we believe that through sacred space we can elevate ourselves and approach the Divine. 

In the beginning, God shows Yaakov the end. The ladder. The Mikdash. Yaakov understands this perfectly, which is why he builds a small edifice, a “mikdash me’at,” the microcosm of what will come later.

Even though Theodore Roosevelt is given credit for the quote, “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground,” this is truly Yaakov’s great lesson. And it’s not just about dreaming big while staying practical; it’s about realizing that just as the Temple is the sacred space of a bridge between the upper and lower worlds, so too are all of us. 

We too can become the sacred space which connects the heavens and the earth. Just as the angels on the ladder first ascended and then descended, so too when we transcend our physical desires and dedicate ourselves to sacred principles and actions, Torah and mitzvot, we can climb the ladder and reach up to the gates of heavens. But the goal is not only to ascend; we must also desire to bring down the Divine presence into the physical world, and to imbue the physical with the spiritual. This is the unique teaching of the Temple, of sacred space, and one that applies to all of us.

What do you think? Do you have a space which you consider sacred? Where is it, and what happened to you there?

Dedicated to the memory of Shlomo Zalman ben Meir on the occasion of his yartzeit.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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