Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Jacob's Ladder - God, Prophecy, Providence and History.

This post is going to be longer and more complicated than the usual ones I write. The subject is however very important to my mind and covers many aspects of Jewish thought; providence, prophecy and History. I therefore ask you to kindly bear with me.

This Shabbat we read Yaakov’s dream of the ladder and the angels. In his introduction to the Moreh Rambam uses it as an example of a prophesy that is given in a metaphor where every word has meaning. He compares it to another prophesy where the general message has meaning while the details are not necessarily important.

Here are the pertinent verses:

יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ.
12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ--לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ.
13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: 'I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou lie, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
יד וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ.
14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ.
15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever you go, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.'

Here are Rambam’s words in the introduction and I will append the explanation to each segment by connecting each with MN 1:15 where Rambam explains what he meant here.

“The word "ladder" refers to one idea: - In MN 1:15 “This ladder all may climb up who wish to do so, and they must ultimately attain to knowledge of Him who is above the summit of the ladder”. The ladder is a metaphor for the process a prophet uses to find God and learn His ways. Metaphorically this type of thinking presents as climbing.

"Set up on the earth" to another "and the top of it reached to heaven" to a third: - In MN 1:15 a cryptic few words: “the upper end of which reached to heaven, while the lower end touched the earth”. I understand that as a metaphor of the direction of thought needed in the search for God. The prophet starts with the earthly, the physical, the sciences – Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy etc… and in the process as he goes along the question of God and His role in all this takes shape.

"Angels of God" to a fourth: - There are two possible interpretation of the word Alav in the text; on him (Yaakov) or on it (the ladder). In MN 1:15 “It must be well understood that the term "upon it" is employed by me in harmony with this metaphor. “Angels of God" who were going up represent the prophets. That the term "angel" was applied to prophets may clearly be seen in the following passages: "He sent an angel" (Num. 20:16); "And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judges 2:1)."

"Ascending" to a fifth; "descending" to a sixth; - Again in MN 1:15: “How suggestive, too, is the expression "ascending and descending on it"! The ascent is mentioned before the descent, inasmuch as the "ascending" and arriving at a certain height of the ladder precedes the "descending," i.e., the application of the knowledge acquired in the ascent for the training and instruction of humankind. This application is termed "descent," in accordance with our explanation of the term Yarad”. The purpose of the prophet’s search for God is to learn from His ways how to lead and teach people. (See also MN 1:54 for a similar understanding in Moshe’s question to God וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ). The search for God is not just an empty intellectual quest but has the purpose to teach correct leadership and behavior.

To better understand the significance of the order of ascent followed by descent, we turn to MN 1:10 where Rambam discusses the terms Yarad and Alah when in that specific order: “When it pleased the Almighty to grant to a human being a certain degree of wisdom or prophetic inspiration, the divine communication thus made to the prophet and the entrance of the Divine Presence into a certain place is termed (yeridah), "descending," while the termination of the prophetic communication or the departure of the divine glory from a place is called ‘Aliyah, "ascending."Whenever "Alah" comes after "Yarad" it means that the prophet disconnected from God however when it is the reverse, "Alah" before "Yarad" it connotes the opposite, a connection to God. That is the meaning of his comment that here the ascent is before the descent. It depicts the climb towards and connecting with the Divine rather than the completion of the process.

"The Lord stood upon it" to a seventh: - MN 1:15 -“And, behold, the Lord stood upon it" (Gen. 18:13), i.e., God was stably and constantly "upon it," namely, upon the ladder”. The idea here is that God is unchanging and is not affected by anything or anyone.

So what do we have so far? A ladder that is a metaphor for the path one takes when speculating about God to learn from Him the way He runs the world and consequently emulates Him. We also know that this information is stable and unchanging.

Now let us look at the whole picture. Why are the angels plural if it is a metaphor for the mind of the prophet? Furthermore there are at least four as there is more than one going up (Olim) and more than one going down (Yordim). Midrashim quoted by Rambam confirm it and say that there are four angels. In addition in the vision at some point all four must have met at the same point, the ones going up and the ones going down. (The assumption based on the text is that each pair operates in tandem). What are these four angels? There are many interpretations of this Rambam and I like the one that sees the angels as the four composites of the earth; the inorganic, the vegetative, the animal and the human. Rambam quoting the Midrash which says each angel takes up a third of the world, while the four together make up the world plus a third, confirms that. When seen from a physical standpoint, humans are part of the animal kingdom. However humans also have the capacity to grasp abstract non-physical concepts, to understand and apprehend things outside the physical universe. When looking at what the world is composed of we therefore have the three physical entities, inorganic, vegetative and animal, which together comprise the physical world while the human capacity adds a third non physical component to it. Thus all together they make up world plus a third.

The prophet in his speculation about existence contemplates the components of his surrounding and as he ascends the ladder he finds the unchanging God who has willed everything. He learns from this how the world operates and deduces what his role in this whole is. He descends back to physical reality and applies this information, which includes both physical elements and non-physical ones, metaphysical and theological ones, in his interaction and leadership of people.
What did Yaakov apprehend as it applies specifically to himself?

[ג] הדברים שמודיעין לנביא במראה הנבואה--דרך משל מודיעין לו, ומיד ייחקק בליבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה, ויידע מה הוא: כמו הסולם שראה יעקוב אבינו, ומלאכים עולים ויורדים בו, והוא היה משל למלכייות, ושיעבודן

Rambam sees the dream as a metaphor for the subjugation of the Jewish people by the nations. Yaakov’s exile because of Eisav’s jealousy is a forerunner of the Jewish people’s fate among the nations of the world. Yaakov thus saw the tribulations and risks that Galut brings. The survival of his descendants as a nation will depend on their attachment to HKBH. It is there, among the nations where
, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶך that they will influence the civilizations they live with and bring to them the knowledge of the existence of a transcendental God.

Maintaining a focus on the objective of looking for the ultimate truth which is nothing other than God is the key to understanding providence. Providence is not something bestowed on a person; it is a quality that a person acquires if he has clear goals that go beyond his immediate physical sustenance. Yaakov’s goal was to create a nation that knew God and spread His knowledge through their search for Him.

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said … to Jacob, "I am with thee, and will keep thee"” (MN 3:18)

The Patriarchs likewise attained this degree of perfection; they approached God in such a manner that with them the name of God became known in the world… I think these four reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him" (Gen. 18:19). The object of all their labors was to publish the Unity of God in the world and to induce people to love Him; and it was on this account that they succeeded in reaching that high degree; for even those [worldly] affairs were for them a perfect worship of God.” (MN 3:51)

The famous Jacob’s ladder is thus a metaphor for all the basic issues a Jew confronts daily, finding God, understanding Prophecy, Providence (Hashgacha), Galut, its purpose and ultimately the meaning of worshiping God. Rambam Hilchot Melachim 11:11-13 gives us an historical insight in how this process of being among the nations worked:

יא אבל מחשבות בורא עולם--אין כוח באדם להשיגם, כי לא דרכינו דרכיו ולא מחשבותינו מחשבותיו. וכל הדברים האלו של ישוע הנוצרי, ושל זה הישמעאלי שעמד אחריו--אינן אלא ליישר דרך למלך המשיח, ולתקן את העולם כולו לעבוד את ה' ביחד: שנאמר "כי אז אהפוך אל עמים, שפה ברורה, לקרוא כולם בשם ה', ולעובדו שכם אחד" (ראה צפניה ג,ט).
יב כיצד: כבר נתמלא העולם כולו מדברי המשיח, ומדברי התורה ומדברי המצוות, ופשטו דברים אלו באיים רחוקים, ובעמים רבים ערלי לב; והם נושאים ונותנים בדברים אלו, ובמצוות התורה--אלו אומרים מצוות אלו אמת היו, וכבר בטלו בזמן הזה, ולא היו נוהגות לדורות. ואלו אומרים דברים נסתרות יש בהם, ואינן כפשוטן, וכבר בא משיח, וגילה נסתריהם.
יג וכשיעמוד המלך המשיח באמת, ויצליח וירום ויינשא--מיד הם כולן חוזרין ויודעים ששקר נחלו אבותיהם, ושנביאיהם ואבותיהם הטעום

It is the conflict itself with Judaism, the clash of civilizations that brings about a dialogue though mostly confrontational, that keeps the question of God and what God means at the forefront. That dialogue will ultimately result in the whole world accepting the Unique God, the ultimate truth.


  1. Very insightful and inspiring post!

    I wonder though, David, if you could comment on precisely how the Rambam's interpretation of the ladder in MN dovetails with his exposition in Yesode Hatorah. You note the two aspects of the vision, but I am not clear on how they should be harmonized.

  2. I thought that I made it clear. There are two parts to the dream. First it explains how prophecy works in general and second what the prophecy was in Yaakov's case.

    In Moreh 1:15 he explains the part that shows how it works for the prophet internally, he seeks to find HKBh and learn how to act, in 2:10 he tells you what he needs to do to get there analyze nature and how God runs it, in Yesodei Hatorah he tells you the result of the Nevuah Shibud Malchuyot.

    Interstingly enough Ramban in Chumash expands with his own twist and I will post next on that.