Parshas Vayetze: The dream of the ladder

The passuk says in this week’s sedrah;
ויחלום והנה סולם מוצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאכי אלקים עולים ויורדים בו

“And he dreamt and behold there was a ladder based on the ground and its top reached the heavens and malachim of Hashem were going up and down on it.”

The Medrash Tanchuma explains;
.. מלמד שהראהו הקב"ה ליעקב אבינו שרה של בבל עולה ויורד, ושל מדי עולה ויורד, ושל יון עולה ויורד, ושל אדום עולה ויורד, א"ל הקדוש ברוך הוא ליעקב יעקב למה אין אתה עולה, באותה שעה נתירא אבינו יעקב ואמר כשם שיש לאלו ירידה, כך אני יש לי ירידה, א"ל הקב"ה אם אתה עולה אין לך ירידה, ולא האמין ולא עלהא"ל הקדוש ברוך הוא אלו עלית והאמנת לא היתה לך ירידה לעולם, אלא הואיל ולא האמנת הרי בניך משתעבדין בהללו ד' מלכיות בעה"ז במסים ובארנוניות ובגולגליות, א"ל יעקב יכול לעולם א"ל אל תירא עבדי יעקב אל תחת ישראל כי אעשה כלה בכל הגוים אשר הפיצותיך שם באומות העולם שהן מכלין את שדותיהן אבל ישראל שאין מכלין את שדותיהן ואותך לא אעשה כלה אלא מיסרך ביסורין בעולם הזה בשביל לנקותך מעונותיך לעתיד לבא 

“This teaches you that Hashem showed Yaakov Avinu the malach of Bavel going up and coming down, the malach of Maddai going up and coming down, the malach of Yavan going up and coming down and the malach of Esav going up and coming down.

Hashem said to Yaakov, ‘Yaakov, why do you not go up?’

At that time Yaakov Avinu was afraid and said ‘Just as these fall so too I will fall if I go up.’

Hashem said to him, ‘If you go up you will not fall.’

Yaakov Avinu did not believe and did not go up.

Hashem said to him, ‘Had you gone up and believed you would never have come down, however because you did not believe your children will be subjugated to these four kingdoms in olam hazeh through profit taxes, land tax and skull tax.

Yaakov asked Hashem, ‘Is this forever?’

Hashem replied, ‘Do not be afraid my servant Yaakov and do not tremble Yisrael…because I will destroy all the nations that I scattered you amongst.’

[This means, I will destroy] the nations that finish off their fields. But regarding Yisrael who do not finish off their fields [because they keep shemitah and rest their fields every seven years and in yovel] – I will not destroy you. Rather I will chastise you with yissurin in olam hazeh in order to cleanse you from your aveiros for the future…”

  • Why was Yaakov afraid to go up the ladder?
  • What is the connection between the umos ha’olam finishing off their fields and their fall?
The Baal ha’Turim gives another explanation in addition to the Midrash Tanchuma and says that the malachim on the ladder that Yaakov saw were malachim that were able to ascend to shamayim because of Yaakov Avinu’s tefillos. The Baal Ha’Turim explains this is similar to the malach that went up in the flame of the korban that Shimshon’s parents brought the second time that he appeared to them. Tefillah is in the place of korbanos, and malachim are able to rise through both tefillah andkorbanos. Hashem showed Yaakov that the malachim were able to ascend the ladder because of his tefillos.

  • Why do the malachim represent both the umos ha’olam and also the koach of Yaakov Avinu’s tefillos?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner z”l explains as follows;
Every empire begins in a natural way, with people seeking out a livelihood from the land. At this stage they are close to the land and they are close to the natural feeling of what is correct and what is incorrect; as the malachim of the nations showed when they started off from the ground.

As a nation grows it is able to leverage its own accomplishments to build roads, cities, an economy, an army and so on. Each part of the nation is now able to use other parts of the national structure to achieve greater things that it would have been able to accomplish by itself. This is when the nation starts climbing the ladder.   However, as the nation climbs the ladder, it becomes separated from the ordinary values that it was aware of as an agrarian society.

Just as the umos ha’olam overfarm their land and seek to extract more from it than it can reasonably produce, so too they now try to extract more from olam hazeh than it is possible to in an honest manner. Eventually the nation falls back down the ladder because the forces on the nation from the rest of the world that has not climbed the ladder together with it cause the nation to fall apart. Yaakov was afraid that just as the umos ha’olam lose their integrity as they become greater so too if klal yisrael would become as great as them they would also lose their basic values and would misuse olam hazeh.

Hashem explained to Yaakov that he did not need to fear this. Klal yisrael keep shemitah and yovel where they show their bitachon in Hashem and therefore refrain from taking more from olam hazeh than it can reasonably produce. So too when klal yisrael becomes great it does not become proud and always maintains its standards of integrity and honesty, unlike the umos ha’olam.

Hashem showed Yaakov that although the nations rise up the ladder of olam hazeh and eventually fall, the benei yisrael rise up the ladder of olam hazeh more gradually through bitachon (as shown through their keeping shemitah) and tefillah so that they never lose their honesty and sense of proportion. This is why the benei yisrael will outlast the umos ha’olam to merit the days of mashiach and olam habah.


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