And he dreamt that there was a ladder set on the ground and its top reached to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Bereishit: 28:12).
Standing at the foot of a ladder
held steady by a celestial hand:
here heaven and earth converge.
All who traverse this ladder
are messengers of God:
stepping rung by rung,
ascending to approach the Divine
and returning to mend the world.
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out on the word ladder or stairway that we ascend towards God in incremental steps, adopting one small change at a time and then implementing it before taking another step. Sometimes we miss a step and slip back, but then we recover and move up again. Most people do not make quantum leaps on the ladder.
Pinchas Leiter in an article entitled “On Dreams and Reality” says that each of us can dream his or her spiritual dream on the ladder that extends from the earth to the heavens. He says that we can think of “ascent” as an opportunity for internal spiritual growth and service and “descent” as re-entering the world and trying to change it for good. He cites Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who interprets the verse from Psalms 115:16, “The heavens are the heavens of God but the earth is given to human beings,” to mean that we are charged with making the world a heaven.
In his book Covenant and Conversation – Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments that Jacob’s vision of the ladder is the inspiration for the basic structure of prayer: ascent; standing in the Presence; descent. He says that prayer is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. We gradually ascend this ladder, away from the world around us, until we may find ourselves aware that we are standing in God’s presence. We then slowly descend the ladder back to our earthly concerns, but something may have changed in us. Rabbi Sacks adds, “If the first stage is the climb, and the second standing in heaven, then the third is bringing a fragment of heaven to earth. For what Jacob realized when he woke from his vision is that God is in this place. Heaven is not somewhere else, but is here – even if we are alone and afraid – if only we realized it. And we can become angels, God’s agents and emissaries…if, like Jacob, we have the ability to pray and the strength to dream, and the openness to see the transformations that can happen in the difficult places between.”