Insights into “Word Concepts” in Torah: The 'sulam'

The Torah Portion of VAYEITZE Genesis 28:10–32:3. The word Sulam- Ladder appears one solitary time in the full text of the Tanach.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism ספר התורה מנצר חזני
ספר התורה מנצר חזני
צילום: PR

The word Sulam- Ladder appears one solitary time in the full text of the Tanach"

"And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, ...a ladder(Sulam) set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it. (Genesis 28:12).

The most important question to ask is why Hashem uses this dream metaphor for Yaacov. This is Yaacov, the man destined to be the father of all twelve tribes. Why was he not privy to some other more majestic and glorious vision from G-d?

Isaiah's vision was in fact glorious;

"In the year of the death of King Uzziah, I saw Hashem sitting on a high and exalted throne, and His lower extremity filled the Temple. Seraphim stood above for Him, six wings, six wings to each one; with two he would cover his face, and with two he would cover his feet, and with two he would fly. And one called to the other and said, "Holy, holy, holy is Hashem of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory( Isaiah 6:1-3..ibid 27-28)

Ezekiel was also gifted with a dramatic vision;

And I saw like the color of chashmal like the appearance of fire within it round about, from the appearance of his loins and above; and from the appearance of his loins and below, I saw [a thing] like the appearance of fire, and there was a brightness round about it.Like the appearance of the rainbow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness round about; that was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Hashem, and when I saw, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice speaking( Ezekiel 1:27-28)

Yaacov sees a Sulam-a Ladder. Why would that be?

In the Torah portion of VaYeitzeh (Genesis 28:10–32:3) ,we see Yaacov fleeing from his home. He was escaping from a brother who was set to kill him. He was running from a father who may have lost some measure of faith and confidence in his son. He was leaving without knowing when he was to return. And he was leaving into a land of the unknown, and into a future filled with challenges and doubt.

It was this flight into exile and the accompanying sense of insecurity that would become the shared experience of his descendants as they themselves would stumble from exile to exile.

Yaacov runs away feeling very unsure about himself and his worthiness. Yitzchak’s ( Isaac’s) words pierced his heart:

And Yitzchak said to Yaacov, "Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esav( Esau)  or not." So Yaacov drew near to Yitzchak his father, and he felt him, and he said, "The voice is the voice of Yaacov, but the hands are the hands of Esav." .'”(Genesis 27:21-22).   

Yaacov was aware that what he did regarding the blessings was clearly within the desire of G-d. Yet Yaacov may have been deeply troubled by the gnawing question of how much of Esav’s character had seeped into his soul. Had “the hands of Esav” overtaken his spiritual “voice of Yaacov”.

He is fatigued and drained and he falls asleep on a rock in the middle of the field.

It is then that G-d reveals to him a powerful image and a deeply impacting metaphor:

"And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, ...a Sulam  ( a 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, Hashem was standing over him, and He said, "I am Hashem, 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." ( Genesis 28:12-13)

The imagery of a ladder was tailored for Yaacov and is in fact deeply linked to Yaakov’s name.
The  Midrash Tanchuma, views the Sulam  as signifying the history of mankind and the path of Jewish destiny. Each of its rungs and angels representing each of the succeeding kingdoms that ruled the earth, revealing their ascent and eventual descent from power.

Rashi quoting the Midrash Rabba explains that the location of the ladder and the timing of the vision describe the fact that "The angels who escorted him in the Land of Israel do not leave the Land but ascend to Heaven, and angels whose domain is outside of Israel descend to accompany him." Other views see the Sulam  as the pathway to spiritual elevation and  like  the “Nefesh haChaim”, see the ladder representing our individual yearning for spirituality. The Zohar simply sees it as representing Prayer.

Yet the imagery of a ladder was tailored for Yaacov and is in fact deeply linked to Yaakov’s name.

The accepted  meaning in the non-Jewish world of Jacob’s name in the world is “he who supplants and undermines. Yet that is an unusual choice of an understanding ,as that definition only comes from the lips of a man who hated Jacob. “Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: “ (Genesis 27:36) .

That is not the real reason Yaacov was given his name. At the birth of Esau and Jacob we read “After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Yaacov(Jacob)”( ibid 25:26). To understand the underlying meaning of the name one must explore the essence of Jacob’s life journey.

The name Yaacov” can only  be understood as the name that describes his struggles through the long voyage of exile and return. It is not intended to be a name connoting weakness or brokenness. Yet it is a name of an individual and a people who will manage a journey through treacherous paths and unfriendly waters. This will need to be done step by step.

That is the true difference between the name given to Yaacov and that given to Esav (Esau). The name “Esav” comes from the Hebrew root Asui (done). That is to say Esav lives in the here and now. That is all that is important in his life. “And Esav said to Jacob, "Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint.. Esav replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?"… and Esav despised the birthright.( Genesis 25:30-34).

On the other hand the name Yaacov comes from the Hebrew root LeAkov (to take step after step). Yaacov represented a spiritual strength and ability to trod forward and continue in spite of all obstacles his life journey. It is that strength to go forward into the unknown which will become an essential characteristic of his descendants.

It is a journey that will compel the children of Yaacov to learn to depend on their G-d above. “For the conductor, a song of David. May Hashem answer you on a day of distress; may the name of the G-d of Yaacov fortify you. May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion. (Psalm 20:1-3)

That is the reason for the image of a ladder. A Sulam or ladder can only be accessed one step at a time. Yet the Sulam is a portable item. It can be moved from place to place and therefore it could be accessed in every place.

In spite of all the promises, Yaacov felt unworthy. Yaacov thought that perhaps some sin or inaction on his part would deflect him from this destiny.

Yaacov was set to go into exile, a world seemingly so devoid of  G-d's immanent  Presence, and as a result he was not sure he had  the strength and tenacity to live up to his mission.

In that sense we are all Yaacov. As a result of the mistakes and downturns in our lives, we may have begun to feel so unworthy. As a result of that sense we can sometimes turn even further away from our G-d and our purpose. We feel so unworthy at times that we feel that we cannot even "look upon His face “In the words of the prophet Ezekiel " Now you, son of man, say to the house of Israel; So have you spoken, saying: For our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and because of them we are melting away, so how can we live?(Ezekiel 33:10).


Yet that is not the reality of our spiritual  lives. Sin does not keep G-d away from man, sin can keep man away from G-d.

So G-d gives Yaacov and us, his descendants, a sign, the Sulam- the ladder.

Yaacov is being told that, in spite of his lowly state and difficult present situation, he will always have before him a ladder that can bring him to the highest of heights. There will never be a place of utter despair.

This helps explain Yaacov's next statement: "And Yaacov awakened out of his sleep, and he said: 'surely Hashem is in this place; and I knew it not.' "

Hashem is not only in this place and in this situation but rather, He and His Sulam- ladder would be available in all locations and in all situations. The ladder then is made up of all its understandings. It reflects destiny, spiritual growth and prayer.

Its most important message, however, is an awareness of What and Who is standing above the ladder waiting for mankind to begin the ascent:

" And behold, Hashem was standing over him, and He said, "I am Hashem, the G-d of Abraham your father, and the G-d of Isaac"(Genesis 28:13

LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Esther