Sunday, November 11, 2007

Deciphering a Metaphor - Yaakov's Ladder Dream.

Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh writes that there are two kinds of Prophetic Metaphors; those that every word and detail teaches something and those that the general theme teaches while the details are there just to make the metaphor understood. As an example for the first kind of metaphor, he uses this week’s Parsha story of Yaakov and the vision of the ladder. Rambam apparently finds this prophecy to be quite seminal as he deals with it in several of his writings.

An example of the first class of prophetic figures is to be found in Genesis:--"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" (Gen. xxviii. 12).
1. The word "ladder" refers to one idea.
2. "Set up on the earth" to another
3. "And the top of it reached to heaven" to a third
4. “Angels of God" to a fourth
5. "Ascending" to a fifth;
6. "Descending" to a sixth;
7. "The Lord stood above it" to a seventh.
Every word in this figure introduces a fresh element into the idea represented by the figure.”

Here are the verses Rambam is addressing -

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,

And, behold, the LORD stood beside him [or upon it].

In MN 1:15 Rambam explains the term Nitzav as having several meanings including-
“[In other instances] it denotes continuance and permanence, as, "Thy word is established (Nitzav) in Heaven" (Ps. 119:89), i.e., it remains forever…”

Starting with the last words in our text, Rambam explains "And, behold, the Lord stood (Nitzav) i.e., appeared as eternal and everlasting” -

The word Alav in the context could be referring to Yaakov. God was standing beside him while talking to him. Rambam however interprets the word Alav –

““upon it” - namely, upon the ladder, the upper end of which reached to heaven, while the lower end touched the earth. 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, because He remains upon it permanently.”

So far, Rambam has addressed numbers 2, 3 and 7 above. Addressing number 4 Rambam explains –

“"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. xx. 16); "And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judges ii. 1).”

Number 5 and 6 are addressed as follows -

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 application of the knowledge acquired is termed Yarad – descended – because –

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."” (MN1:10)

This is how Rambam addresses six out of the seven terms (metaphors) that he told us in the introduction have meaning beyond the simple reading of the text. I will try now to present in a coherent manner how I understand what he is saying.

Yaakov’s vision is a description of how prophecy is developed. Yaakov is going into exile, leaving the safety of his father’s house, into the unknown. He carries with him the blessing of his father, a visionary blessing, of descendants that will become a nation worthy of Avraham.

ג וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים.

3 And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou may be a congregation of peoples;

ד וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ--לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם.

4 and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou may inherit the land of thy sojourning, which God gave unto Abraham.'

This is not only a blessing but also a challenge for Yaakov to work towards that goal, Avraham’s goal, of creating a nation that follow in the path of HKBH emulating Him. How does one accomplish this? That was the question that was foremost in Yaakov’s mind and it triggered this prophetic dream. The way to prophecy, to know with certainty the path one has to follow to accomplish a long-term multi generational goal, is by starting at the bottom of the ladder, the end that is planted in the ground. Learn about how the world operates and follow the cause and effect trail climbing the ladder all the way to the First Cause, the Entity that is permanent and unchanging and the source of everything. Contemplating the world from that perspective, the prophet develops an understanding of what has to be done to accomplish the goal. He then comes back down the ladder, “the application of the knowledge acquired is termed Yarad – descended” – and acts so that his goal is attained. This insight and ability to focus all one’s actions towards this goal is what is referred to as Divine Providence.

I think these four [the Avot and Moshe] 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)”. (MN1:51)

In my next post, I will address the choice of a ladder as a metaphor and its meaning.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I like that the First Cause is the immovable station at the top, and everything below is an effect from that.