Our parasha begins with the famous words, “And Yaakov left Beersheba, and he went to Charan” (Bereishit 28:10). Yaakov’s departure is a direct response to his mother Rivka’s wishes, and his father Yitzchak’s earlier two-fold statement.
Rivka told Yitzchak, “I am disgusted with my life because of the daughters of Cheth [Esav’s wives]. If Yaakov takes a wife like these, from the daughters of the land, of what use is life to me?” (27:46)
Yitzchak called Yaakov and told him, “Do not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Lavan” (28:1-2).
Yaakov fulfills his filial responsibility with alacrity, and arrives “at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down.” Rashi identifies the place cited in this verse as Mount Moriah, the location of both Akeidat Yitzchak and the future Beit HaMikdash. Little wonder, then, that a miracle took place.
“And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set up on the ground [sulam mutzav artzah] and its top reached up to heaven [v’rosho magia hashamaimah]; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending it. And behold, the L-rd was standing over him, and He said, ‘I am the L-rd, the G-d of Abraham your father, and the G-d of Yitzchak; the land upon which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your children’” (28:12-13).
The verse contains the sole instance in Tanach of the term “sulam.” Such an unusual word naturally captured the imaginations of Torah commentators throughout the ages. Thus, we find the following gematria-based interpretation of Yaakov’s dream by the great Mishnaic thinker Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:
“[G-d] showed [Yaakov] Mount Sinai. [How do we know?] The letter samech in Sinai equals 60, the first and last yud(s) equal 10, and the nun is equivalent to 50. This adds up to 130 — the numerical value of the word ‘sulam.’ In addition, in our verse, we find the expression, “its top reached up to heaven,” and in reference to Mount Sinai we find, “the mountain burned with fire up to heaven” (Midrash Tanchuma Parashat Vayatze VII).
For Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, based upon the relevant numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters and the linguistic parallels in the verses he quotes, the sulam is Yaakov’s prophetic on-ramp to a vision of the future Revelation at Mount Sinai.
We are not surprised, therefore, when Yaakov proclaims: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).
Like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the 14th-century Torah scholar Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (the Tur) was a master of gematria. In his commentary on the Torah, he notes that the word “sulam” is also the numerical equivalent of kol, voice, and cites the first volume of the Zohar, section 266: “The voice of the righteous in prayer is the ladder upon which the angels ascend.” Shortly thereafter he states: “Everyone, therefore, who has true kavanah and heartfelt dedication in their prayers has a ladder with complete rungs upon which the angels will be able to ascend [to Heaven].”
According to the Tur’s interpretation of the Zohar, it appears that tzaddikim, by definition, have the ability to imbue their tefilah with deep-level kavanah. Moreover, their prayers are so powerful and of such great import to G-d that they serve as a vehicle for the angels.
We are neither prophets like Yaakov nor tzaddikim like those referenced in the Zohar. Nonetheless, with Hashem’s help and our most heartfelt desire, we can invest our tefilot with kavanah and a sense of awe and wonder that we, too, are ever standing before the Holy One blessed be He. May we, too, build ladders upon which the angels will be able to ascend.