Rabbi Eli Blum
Former Rosh Kollel, Cleveland (2007)
In Parshat Vayeitzei, we learn about Yaakov’s dream:
“And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, Hashem was standing over him, and He said, I am Hashem, God of Avraham your father, and God of Yitzchak; the land upon which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out powerfully westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your descendants. And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” (Breishit 28:12-15)
Together, the image of the ladder reaching from the ground up to the heavens and the brachah (blessing) about Yaakov’s descendants and the return to Eretz Yisrael are clear indications of Yaakov’s future roles. He is to serve as a ladder reaching from the ground up to the heavens, and he is to build his family – Beit Yisrael – and return to Eretz HaKodesh.
Indeed, many commentators cite the Zohar to the effect that Yaakov is the ladder and that the angels ascend and descend in his merit.
The idea that Yaakov is a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens – in other words, he is rooted in the practical world but nevertheless connected to the spiritual worlds via his soul – is the basis of our understanding of both Yaakov’s fundamental role and our fundamental role as Bnei Yisrael throughout the ages. After all, each and every one of us is such a ladder. We are rooted in the practical world of our daily existence, but we are charged with connecting this world to its source in the heavens.
As Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni) declare:
“The Avot are the chariot of the Shechinah.”
In other words, the Avot serve as a link between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and our world.
This concept introduces the important question of talmud (study) versus maaseh (action or deeds). How are we to balance Torah learning with the practical aspects of the other mitzvot?
The Gemara (BT Kiddushin 40b) states:
“R’ Tarfon and the elders were gathered in the upper chamber of Nit’zah’s house in Lod. This question was asked in their presence: Is talmud (i.e. Torah learning) greater or is maaseh (i.e. performing mitzvot) greater? R’ Tarfon replied and said, ‘Maaseh is greater.’ R’ Akiva replied and said, ‘Talmud is greater.’ Everyone replied and said, ‘Talmudis greater, because talmud leads to maaseh …’”
Tosafot wonder how talmud can be greater. After all, the Gemara seems to suggest that maaseh is the ultimate objective, and therefore maaseh should be greater.
Rashi takes a pragmatic approach. He notes that talmud precedes maaseh, because this way, “one has both in his hands.” In other words, there is a chance that one will accomplish both talmud and maaseh, but if the order had been reversed, one would likely achieve neither.
In contrast, Tosafot distinguishes between two different cases:
1. When one is learning for oneself, maaseh is greater. However, if one is teaching others, talmud is greater.
2. If one has already learned a considerable amount, maaseh is greater. However, if one has not yet learned, talmudis greater.
Note that the first case assigns values to talmud and maaseh. But the second case refers to an issue of precedence. (Indeed, theYerushalmi suggests that this question is one of precedence.)
The Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:3) makes a clear value judgment which impacts the issue of precedence:
“There is no mitzvah among all the mitzvot which is equal to talmud Torah. Rather, talmud Torah is compared to all of the mitzvot together, because talmud leads to maaseh. Hence, talmud precedes maaseh everywhere.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:18) concurs and rules:
“Talmud Torah is equivalent to all the mitzvot. If one is confronted with the opportunity to perform a mitzvah andtalmud Torah – if the mitzvah can be performed by others, one should not interrupt one’s learning. But if not, one should perform the mitzvah, and then return to one’s Torah [learning].”
Thus, there is no mitzvah greater than learning Torah. Nevertheless, our Torah is a living Torah. Therefore, if no one else is available to perform a mitzvah, one must perform it oneself. (This halachah can be found explicitly in both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli.)
In any event, by its very nature, the Torah leads to action and lifts the entire practical world to the realm of holiness and sanctity.
With Hashem’s help, may our Torah learning and our educational and ideological deeds enable us to achieve the status of a ladder which is set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven.