Vayetze’s lessons of ladders and greatness


Our parasha presents us with one of the most famous nevuot in the entire Tanach, Ya’akov and the sulam (ladder): “And he dreamed and behold! a sulam — ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon 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 Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed’.” (Bereishit 28:12-13)

It is the first time the word sulam is found in Tanach. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) suggests that the sulam is a metaphorical representation of Har Sinai: “The letter samech in sinai has the numerical value of 60, the first yud equals 10, the nun is 50, and the final yud is 10. [If we add these numbers together,] the total is 130 — the same exact value as the letters in sulam [samech = 60, lamed = 30 mem = 40]. [Moreover,] the text states in regard to the sulam: ‘and its top reached to heaven,’ and it states in reference to Har Sinai: ‘and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens’.”

The Ramban focuses his exegetical efforts upon the singular import of the phrase, “and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it,” and stresses its overarching significance within Jewish theology:

“In his [Ya’akov’s] dream He [Hashem] presented to him the prophetic vision that everything that takes place in this world is done through the agency of the Angels, and everything is undertaken based upon the divine decree of [Hashem], the most High. This is the case, since the Angels of the Almighty that Hashem sends to walk upon the earth do not do anything whatsoever — neither small nor great — until they return and stand before the Master of the Entire World. They then speak before Him and say: ‘We have walked upon the earth and, behold, it is dwelling in peace, or it is filled with war and blood.’ [After receiving their report,] He commands them to return and go down to the earth to carry out His word.”

The Ramban opines that while this concept is operable in general, Ya’akov Avinu is a notable exception to the rule because “he achieved a higher level than all other tzadikim” and it is stated, “For He will command His Angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.”

In the Ramban’s view, Ya’akov Avinu established a matchless relationship with the Almighty that differed in kind and degree from all other tzadikim. I believe that it was precisely this connection that enabled Ya’akov to withstand the trials and tribulations engendered by Eisav, Lavan and his exile in Egypt during the twilight years of his life.

Hashem promised him before traveling to Egypt: “I am G-d, the G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” (Bereishit 46:3) It many ways, it is this promise that has enabled the Jewish people to survive exile after exile, and catastrophe after catastrophe for we know that no matter where we may be, and what we may suffer, Hashem is with us. 

May the time come soon and in our day when we will witness the fulfillment of David HaMelech’s stirring words: “May all those who seek You exult and rejoice, and may those who love Your salvation say constantly, ‘May G-d be magnified’.” (Tehillim 70:5) V’chane yihi ratzon.