In reading Rabbi Akiva Kashtiel’s (Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva Gevoha, B’nai David, Eli) work on the parsha, “Taaroch Lefanai Shulchan” I realized that I had possibly been misunderstanding the full complexity of a Pasuk at the beginning of this week’s parsha.
The Pasuk appears in the description of Yaakov’s great vision at the beginning of the parsha. Chapter 28 of Breishit verse 13 describes the vision of HaShem appearing at the top of the ladder in Yaakov’s dream: “And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;”
The word “Alav” (‘above it‘) is always assumed to be referring to the ladder. The ladder represents the world, reality. There are many powers ascending and descending in this world. Jacob is experiencing many changes. He is going into the unknown. Used to being a man of his tent, Jacob is now being compelled to go out into a world full of challenges. In going out on his way a person is in need of strength – strength that will give Yaakov a sense of certainty amidst all of the unknown. The simple meaning of “Alav” then is “above it” – i.e above the ladder. Despite all the changes and challenges that Yaakov is about to experience, HaShem stands at the top of the world. Despite all the changes, HaShem Standing at the top of the ladder represents stability and certainty. Whatever appears to be random in Jacob’s world and experience is really being controlled and directed by He who stands at the top of the ladder.
This is how I always understood the verse and especially the word “Alav”.
But “Alav” can also be translated as “upon him” referring not to the ladder but to him- Yaakov, himself . The stability that Yaakov requires is not only on the ladder but is found deep within himself. It is as if HaShem is saying to Yaakov – don’t worry – all of the changes and challenges in the world cannot overcome you. You have special providence, a different level of Divine closeness. The unique quality of the People of Israel is the divine stability that is within you. The Ramban and others teach “Maase Avot Siman LaBanim”. This means that the forefathers are archetypes. What happens to them is a symbol of what will happen to the Jewish people. Understood this way – Yaakov’s special quality of divine stability is found within each one of us. Deep within each one of us is a connection, that cannot be broken or destroyed, to the divine. HaShem is not only on the ladder of the world but is within each and every one of us. Despite all of the challenges that we face, God and the stability that He provides is deep within us.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin brings together these two meanings in his famous work “Nefesh HaChaim” (Gate 1, Chapter 19). There, R. Chaim quotes the words of the Zohar which explains that the ladder is actually the living soul of a person. The ladder is actually synonymous with Yaakov. God stands at the top of the ladder and within Yaakov. The two are actually one. Understood this way, we achieve a new insight. The “Person-Ladder” is a soul that spans the heavens and the earth. This progression includes many steps along the way which include ups and downs. Know that all the stages and all the ups and downs are actually an integral component of your essence. Although unknown to us, all of these struggles and challenges are part of the essence of our being and there is a reason for all of them. If we know how to deal with the challenges correctly then we will emerge as better people.
This idea gave Yaakov strength as he left his comfortable surroundings and has given strength and stability to Jews of all times living in an unstable world.