Dear Hebrew Academy Community:
What was the message that HaKadosh Baruch Hu was conveying to Yaakov with the vision of “a ladder set up on the ground and its top reaching heaven” with angels ascending and descending on the ladder? Rav Nebenzahl, the Rav of the Old City of Yerushalayim, argues that we should understand the phrase מלאכי אלוקים עולים ויורדים בו not as angels rising and descending on it, on the ladder, but rather as rising and descending within Yaakov. God was telling Yaakov, “Yes, you have spent the past many years studying—according to the Midrash—in yeshiva, but just as there is an endless number of rungs to be climbed as the ladder reaches the heavens, there still are many, many higher levels to which you must aspire and for which you must work.” But, cautioned God, it is very easy to slip and fall. It takes no effort at all, perhaps just a little laziness, to fall down several steps, even to the very bottom, if you decide to take a break from your effort to continue moving upward.
The next Pesukim, argues Rav Nebenzahl, indicate that Yaakov got the message. In the dream Hashem gives Yaakov a wonderful composite blessing: I am going to give this land to you and your children; Your children will be as numerous as the dust of the earth; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. Yaakov’s reaction to these Brachot was not, “Baruch Hashem! What great blessings!” It was, “He was afraid, and he proclaimed, ‘How full of awe is this place.” He immediately understood both the magnitude and the challenge of the Brachot God had bestowed upon him.
Yaakov then turns to the Almighty and makes two requests that go beyond what God had just promised him: 1. He asks for “bread to eat and clothing to wear;” and 2. And he asks that “Hashem should be his God” The first request for material things was a very modest one. He didn’t ask for caviar and champagne and a set of designer clothing for each day of the week. He asked just for the bare essentials, for some nourishment and clothing. His second request, on the other hand, was quite bold: I would like there to be an eternal public articulation that I have a relationship with Hashem which is equal to that of my saintly father and grandfather, that for evermore it will be Elokai Avraham, Elokai Yitzchak, and Elokai Yaakov. That’s a lot to ask.
Yaakov understood that while it is quite appropriate for one to be content with the level of material success he/she has achieved and not to spend one’s life in the perpetual quest for wealth, it is never appropriate to be satisfied with the level of religious growth he/she has achieved and to complacently decide that half-way (or higher) up the ladder is good enough for me.
Dr. Kalman Stein
Interim Head of School