What's The Meaning Of Jacob's Ladder?
Jacob, Angels, And Connecting To God
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Parshat Vayeitzei opens with Jacob on the run, encountering a vision of angels on a ladder. And it ends with… Jacob on the run, once again encountering angels. What’s this about? Are these just neat bookends to the parsha, or is there a deeper message embedded in these parallel stories?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores a number of intertextual parallels that reach all the way back to an earlier story in Genesis, and uncover a fascinating insight into the life of Jacob and the meaning of his angelic encounters. By the end, you will come away with a new understanding of the meaning of Jacob’s mysterious vision of the ladder, and what that vision might mean for his family’s mission here on earth.
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So the beginning of this week’s parsha tells of a dream – a famous vision, beheld by Yaakov.
What Is the Meaning of Jacob's Ladder?
He sees this ladder, with its feet planted on the ground, and its top reaching into the heavens. Angels are going up and down the ladder.
In his dream, God declared to Jacob that He will give him this land, the land Jacob is resting upon, right now. He’s going to give this land to him and to his children – and those children are going to be numerous; they're going to be like the dust of the earth.
So the question I have for you is: What’s the deal with the ladder? Was that ladder, you know, just a nice visual effect – a little heavenly CGI, to make the whole scene seem more dramatic? Or did the image of the ladder somehow contribute to the message of the dream? Did it actually refine or enrich what the dream meant to say?
I think the latter possibility – pardon the pun – might just be the case. And here’s why.
Connecting Jacob's Ladder to Bible Stories in the Bible
It turns out that there are two other stories, elsewhere in the Torah, that seem to correspond, in an eerie way, with the words, the images of Jacob’s dream sequence here. I want to look at those other stories with you.
I have a feeling that they each shed important light on the meaning of Jacob’s dream, and the meaning of the ladder that he envisions in that dream.
So what are those two other stories, with these resonances of Jacob’s ladder? Ok, so to discover the first of these stories, let’s just pause a minute and set the scene for Jacob’s dream.
Here is Jacob; his father, Isaac, has just blessed him and said goodbye to him. Jacob, of course, is trying to run away from his brother, Esav, who he has just deceived. And so:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע
Jacob goes and leaves Be’er Sheva,
and he goes. heads off toward the land of Charanin, leaving the Land of Canaan.
And all of a sudden: וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם.
he meets up with a place.
I know it's a strange choice of words, I grant you, but you know, who am I to argue? That’s what the text says. He meets up with a place, and there, Jacob falls asleep and in that place has a dream, a dream of angels going up and down a ladder. Jacob names the place after the vision, calling it ‘beit el’, the House of God.
So here’s my question for you: where else do we meet a scene that reminds you of this? When else in the Torah is Jacob on the road, journeying between Charan and the Land of Canaan? When else in the torah does Jacob meet angels? When else does that same, peculiar word – vayifga – get used to describe the encounter with those angels?
Jacob's Encounters with Angels
You see there, at the end of Vayeitzei, Jacob is again on the road – except this time in reverse direction. He is going from Charan back to the Land of Canaan. You see, at the beginning of Vayeitzei, Yaakov was leaving his father’s house. And now, at the end of Vayeitzei, he is leaving Lavan – his father-in-law’s house.
Back at the beginning of Vayeitzei, with that dream with the ladder, father had blessed his child and said goodbye. And now, at the end of Vayeitzei – same kind of thing happening…
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו
Lavan, father in law, woke up in the morning and kissed his children goodbye
and blessed them…
As you can tell, it is starting to sound – as Yogi Berra might say – like deja vu all over again. And, you know, picking up at the story at the end of Vayeitzei, listen to what happens next:
וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃
And Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him…
So once again, after leaving father, this time father-in-law, Jacob encounters angels. Same unusual word – וַיִּפְגְּעוּ – used to describe the encounter with them. And, just like the first time, Yaakov names the place:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר רָאָ֔ם מַחֲנֵ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים זֶ֑ה וַיִּקְרָ֛א שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא מַֽחֲנָֽיִם
And Jacob said when he saw those angels: ‘this is the camp of God’; and he named the place: ‘camps’.
So you know, its hard to escape the feeling that these two stories, they’re somehow connected. Except, for all their similarities, there are some contrasts between these two stories also.
The Differences in Jacob's Angel Encounters
For example: The first time around, in his dream with the ladder, Yaakov encounters a place, and in the place… there were angels. But he doesn’t encounter the angels directly. He actually sleeps while the angels go up and down the ladder. The angels pretty much ignored him. He is an observer, we might say, not a participant, in the drama.
But not so the second time around, at the end of Vayeitzei, he and the angels are moving towards one another, on the same plane. And Jacob doesn’t just encounter the place; he encounters the angels themselves, directly.
This time, he is not just an observer of a drama; he is a participant in it. And it kind of makes you wonder. What changed? Why are things different now?
Ok, so let’s move on to that second story that I was telling you about. What other story in the Torah – besides Yaakov’s encountering the angels of machanayim – seems to line up, somehow, with Yaakov’s vision of the Ladder?
Deeper Parallels to Jacob's Vision of the Ladder
So, I personally first got clued into the connection I’m about to tell you about, when I was traveling on a trip to the Grand Canyon last summer; and along the way, I was studying with my daughter, Ariella, in the car, and she asked me about the Torah’s description of Jacob’s Ladder.
The Torah says about the ladder that it starts on the earth, and ‘rosho bashamayim,’ its head is in heaven. So Ariella turns to me and says: Abba, that sure sounds a lot like another structure in the Torah that starts on the ground and rosho bashamayim – its head is in the heavens.
What, folks, is that other structure? Well, what Ariella was thinking about was the Tower of Babel. It’s actually the only other structure the Torah described this exact way.
וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם,
The builders of the tower, they say: come, let’s build a city and a tower, with its head in heaven, and let’s make a name for ourselves.
So could these two structures have anything to do with each other?
The Tower and the Ladder; they do seem to be eerily related. And it’s not just the words ‘rosho bashamayim’ that seems to connect them; there’s actually a whole host of other parallels between the stories. I actually did a webinar a while back exploring the broader connections between those stories and you can find that webinar in the description of this video below.
So I want to suggest to you that, in a way, the Ladder may well be a kind of mirror of the Tower: The tower, of course, is this great building project embarked upon by man; and the ladder, it's built by God. The tower gets condemned by God; but the ladder, seemingly, the ladder is wonderful.
Which brings us, of course, to the heart of the matter: For the Tower and for the Ladder… What was the purpose of each structure?
What Is the Significance of Jacob's Ladder?
Well, here, too, maybe the tower and the ladder are actually mirrors of each other. You see, the Tower, it seemed designed to help humans make the leap to the stars, so to speak, to God’s realm. And that makes you sort of wonder: If the tower is a way that humans imagined they could get to the heavens, is the ladder a vehicle through which heavenly beings – maybe even God Himself – could reach the earth?
You see, through the Tower, people actually sought to build a name for themselves. “וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם” in the words of the text. Which means, even if they scatter and even if their civilization suddenly disappears, still, the tower that they have built, inasmuch as it pierces the heavens, it’s a great monument to them as a civilization. It’s going to be their legacy.
So, could the ladder have had an inverse purpose to that? God’s domain is in the heavens – but this ladder, it is a bridge between worlds... Could its intent be to somehow help God ‘make a name for Himself’, as it were – to establish some sort of legacy for Himself, in our world?
So, such thoughts are, you know, rather intriguing, but the question that immediately comes to mind is: How, exactly, would a ladder do any of those things? How would this ladder help a heavenly God make His mark, as it were, upon the earth? How would it help God establish ‘a name’ here?
And the answer to that might lie in the message that Jacob receives from God in the dream. ‘Cause remember, while he’s looking at the Ladder, God had told Yaakov that his children would become like the dust of the earth, and collectively, they would come to possess the Land of Canaan.
We asked, before, why that message was accompanied by this mysterious vision of a Divine Ladder. And maybe the answer is that the two parts of the dream we’ve been talking about – the vision and the message – are actually... one and the same. There’s gonna be a nation. But the nation isn’t just a blind fact. It has a purpose, a reason for being. The reason the nation exists is to become the ladder.
Explaining the Story of Jacob's Ladder
The nation, somehow, its going to connect heaven and earth. It will be a vehicle for bringing God’s Name into the world – our world – for leaving a Divine mark upon this very physical world. How would it do that? And when would it begin to do that?
It all happens, maybe, at the end of Vayeitzei – with that parallel story we’d been talking about, the one with the angels of machanayim.
You see, Vayeitzei begins with a lonely Jacob on the lam, running away from his brother, leaving the Land of Canaan; if those are the circumstances under which Jacob has his dream of the Ladder, Vayeitzei ends with an inverse of those circumstances: Jacob is on his way home, back to the Land of Canaan. He is not a lone individual anymore. He’s got a family, comprised of children. The children who are the incipient Tribes of Israel. The dream is happening now. The nation... is actually being born.
And when it's happening, Jacob begins to become the ladder. How? Not just because he’s becoming a nation, but because he is actualizing, in his life and the life of his family, something that the nation needs to actually stand for. He is beginning to bring Godly values from heaven, as it were, down into this world, he’s beginning to make them a reality in this terrestrial sphere of ours.
A brave and noble thing is happening at the end of Vayeitzei – a Godly thing. Jacob, who once fled his brother’s wrath, is coming now, proactively, to meet his brother in person. He does not evade him, as before; he seeks him out. He comes to meet him. He sends him gifts. He embraces him and he kisses him. He does his best to reconcile with him.
Isn’t it interesting that it is at this very moment that Jacob, once again… just happens to meet up with angels? Angels that are not oblivious to him, but are coming to actually meet him. Angels that are not just in a dream, but angels that are there in real life. Angels that are not perpendicular to him, but angels that are actually aligned with him.
The Metaphorical Meaning Behind Jacob's Ladder
Maybe the answer is: The angels haven’t really changed. They, perhaps, are the same angels that were on the ladder. The angels haven’t changed; Jacob has changed.
His perspective has shifted. No longer is he asleep on the floor as angels ascend to heaven in a mere dream. No, the dream has started to become real: The ladder isn’t imagined anymore. Jacob is becoming the ladder, in ‘real-life.’ And so of course, the angels, whose whole goal is to get to the ladder, to go down to it, those angels are meeting him now, head on, eye to eye.
What does it mean to say he has become a ladder, in real life? Well, the ladder is a conduit – a way the Divine could connect to the earth. And how does the Divine connect to the earth? The answer is: through human action.
When human beings act nobly, courageously, when they bring Divine values into the world through their actions, they become a kind of ladder.
You see, a Divine value is just a thought; it is intangible. It is all very nice for God to have all these values, but if they don’t affect life here, we all merrily go on our way without them. By embodying God’s values in our actions, we build a shem – a name – for God in the world; we help make a lasting mark for the Divine here, in our very tangible, physical reality.
At the end of Vayeitzei, Jacob takes a fateful step. Laden with the children that will become scions of his nation, he approaches his brother and seeks to make things right with him. That overture may seem small, but it is the beginning of a journey for this incipient nation – a journey of bringing heavenly values into the real world.
Jacob has begun to make his dream real. And in doing so, with his feet planted firmly on the ground, he has begun to pierce the heavens.