After Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, oldest brother Esau becomes enraged and Jacob has to run for his life, which means leaving Israel and heading instead to the sinful city of Charan. On the road, Jacob goes to sleep and has a vivid dream of “a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.” (Gen: 28:12) This mysterious vision has many interpretations. Some say the ladder represents prayer because Jacob slept on the Temple Mount, where Jewish prayers ascend directly to God. Others claim the dream is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, where the Torah was given, because Torah is a ladder connecting humans to heaven.
But why does Jacob have the dream at this particular time in his life? Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen (1523-1598), a scholar and mystic, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself. The journey from his family home in the Holy Land to a place of debased strangers must be traumatic for Jacob, and God shows him the ladder to impart an important message. Wherever he goes, even to a strange land that seems far from everything holy, Jacob will always have the ability to build a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who is commanded to leave Charan and go to Israel, Jacob is destined to travel the opposite route. His mission, which he bequeathed to his descendants, is to find Divine light even in the darkest of places.
Image: “Jacob’s Ladder” by Jacques Stella (1650)