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Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

First, an overview


“Were you ever in a synagogue?”

“Sure. I go all the time.”

“What do they do there?”

“They pray.”

“Really. How do they do that?”

“Well, they say lots of prayers. Then they read from a scroll. Then the rabbi talks, and they pray some more.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“Not really.”

Hold on! Didn’t we start this whole series by explaining how prayer is the wildest, most exotic thing you can do? So how, pray tell, did they make it so dull?

The simple answer: Prayer is something like watching a chess game. If you have no clue what’s going on, it’s about as thrilling as watching the grass grow. The more you know about the game, the more thrilling it becomes.

So let’s start by getting a picture of the overall structure—where are we starting, where are we heading, and how do we get there. Because, you see, the morning prayer services are structured quite similar to a four-staged rocket launch into the heavens.

I didn’t make that up. It’s an explicit passage in Genesis:

Jacob left Be’er Sheva and headed toward Charan. He came to a familiar place and there he spent the night, as the sun had already set. Taking some stones, he placed them at his head and lay down there to sleep. Then he had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached the heavens. Upon it, G‑d’s angels were going up and down.1

What was that ladder? According to the Zohar, it’s the ladder of prayer. A four-runged ladder, actually—and accordingly, we climb four flights of stairs to move through four floors in our prayers (elevators are available for special needs and will be discussed later in the series):

Now the image above may not be the most sophisticated illustration of this ladder, but there are nevertheless a few things to be discerned from it.

  1. This is a two-way ladder. How can you tell? The angels are moving in two directions—just like in Jacob’s dream. (Don't see the angels. Look closer. The camera aperture/focus wasn't properly adjusted for angels.) They aren’t just going up, they’re coming down; and both are happening at the same time. You might call that uploading and downloading. (We call that hamshachah and haala’ah, concepts we’ll get to later.) Which means that this isn’t an escape ladder. We’re not running away from anything—because whatever goes up on this ladder, also goes down. And vice-versa.
  2. The ladder goes from the earth heavenwards—with no particular destination. Just as high as you can go. Which means that it’s connecting the most mundane, everyday, visceral experience with the most sublime, spiritual abstraction. The most heavenly with the earthiest.
  3. All the worlds are connected by this ladder. It’s not just an odyssey for you to come back and tell about to your grandchildren—it’s a creative process as well: all these worlds along the way become a single entity. You could call it a transport system to connect remote regions, or perhaps a networking system. The main point is that the purpose of our prayers is to connect the entire cosmos into a single whole.

Okay, so what are these realms through which the ladder takes us? Are we traveling to strange places with little green men where time goes backwards, or where there are thirteen spatial dimensions instead of three? How far do we need to travel to get there? How many light years?

The answer is zero. These worlds are right here now. The journey to get from one to another isn’t through space, but through consciousness and perception.

Recall the KabbalaToon in the last installment about Investmentization? We saw that there are creatures that live here on planet Earth, yet perceive an entirely different world. The world of a desert fox (and a pet dog) is principally made not of images, but of smells. When hounds have nightmares, they don’t see ghoulish fiends, they smell rotten meat. Bats live in a sonar world. Certain sharks live in a world perceived by magnetic resonance.

Unlike other creatures, human beings don't just see a tree when they see a tree

Similarly, human beings themselves can live in vastly different worlds. That’s once advantage human beings have over other earthly creatures: we traverse worlds. Meaning, we can perceive our world in deeper and deeper ways. We’re not limited to seeing, say, just a tree. We can see beauty there—which is something spiritual. In fact, we walk back and forth all the time between talking about the tree in concrete and in abstract terms.

Well, some human beings more than others. It would not be an exaggeration to say that an artist lives in a very different world than a staid bureaucrat, and a comedian in a world quite distinct from a banker (arguably to our benefit).

Now let’s go a little further with this tree. We could also attempt to see the tree as an articulation of one of G‑d’s thoughts. Then we would be in a higher world. The tree would no longer be something that’s “just there.” It would be speaking to us, pointing to something higher than itself.

From there, we could go yet higher, to a tree that doesn’t even need to point—it itself is engulfed within an all-encompassing light, a light within which nothing any longer has a distinct identity, absorbed as they are within an infinite source.

Here’s a KabbalaToon that might help you conceive of such things. Watch it a few times, paying attention to the dial at the bottom of the tutorial display:

Just as the world of the desert fox could be accessed if you had its hyper-keen sense of smell, so there are worlds accessible to us according to our state of consciousness. Which explains why the prophets were able to traverse these worlds quite literally—because they attained states of higher consciousness. Take a look at this strikingly mystical passage from the same Maimonides who is generally painted as a pragmatic, rational realist:

Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must also possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity.

A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound is fit for prophecy. When he enters the Orchard and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses an accurate mental capacity to comprehend and grasp them, he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.

Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath G‑d’s Throne of Glory, striving to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, in its manifold manifestations from the most elevated spiritual form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them. After these preparations, the divine spirit will immediately rest upon him.2

When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels called ishim, and he will be transformed into a different person and will understand with a knowledge different from what it was previously. He will rise above the level of other wise men, as the prophet Samuel told Saul:3 “The spirit of God will descend upon you and you shall prophesy with them. And you will be transformed into a different person.”4

Traditions concerning these “journeys of consciousness” were passed down orally. We are provided an inkling of these journeys in Talmudic anecdotes and in Sefer HaBahir. Even in later generations, Kabbalists such as the Baal Shem Tov were known to visit higher worlds and come back to tell us about them. The rest of us can at least try to imagine what it’s like. What sort of a journey would we have through prayer if we were a prophet? How does the Kabbalah master perceive the world during and after his tefillah? Just that imagination itself is a wondrous journey for us. Just the idea that we are invited on such a journey, even though it is something far beyond us, can inspire awe. As long as we recognize that we remain simple people—that we haven’t become Kabbalah masters overnight.

On this topic, you’ll want to read two stories: The Prayer Business, and The Two Horses of the Baal Shem Tov in the blog of Training Feivel.

Now here’s the chart mapping the four worlds that we traverse, according to the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari:5

World Consciousness Section
Asiyah—Action There is a world
It has no source
Yetzirah—Formation There is a world
It has a source
Verses of Praise
Beriah—Creation There is a Source
It has a world
Shema & its blessings
Atzilut—Emanation There is Infinite Light
There is nothing else
Shemoneh Esrei

In the upcoming installment, we’ll see how this map relates to how we are supposed to approach these stages of the tefillah. We’ll examine practical ways to apply all of this, so that the morning service can become not just meaningful, but a powerful element in our day. In the meantime, I would be happy to hear some requests in the Reader Comments. Where do you want this to take you? What bothers you most about tefillah, and what questions do you need answered?

This does not imply that he will immediately prophesy. See halachah 5, and also Moreh Nevuchim 2:32, where Maimonides writes that after all these efforts, actual prophecy must be initiated by G‑d from above.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1.
See Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Hakavanot (especially Inyan Kaddish). See also Sefer Hamaamarim 5707, p. 233; Likkutei Dibburim 27:16–20.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Leah Washington February 7, 2016

The Ladder ...and interestingly one gains personal mastery as he climbs reaching heights only to start perhaps in the next life) from the bottom of this same lesson. In many cases it is to revisit the lesson through the eyes of a teacher. Reply

Tzvi Freeman November 17, 2013

Re: Structure of Shachrit journey I'm sorry that this series is yet unfinished. All sorts of other projects jumped in the way. I have the chart and much of the work ready. Hopefully, one day it will still be completed. Reply

Anonymous Canada November 14, 2013

Structure of Shachrit journey In the article it says, "In the upcoming installment, we’ll see how this map relates to how we are supposed to approach these stages of the tefillah."
Im reading through all the articles but Im not finding this information: which parts of Shachrit are the different rungs? And what does each rung do to our consciousness? How does that portion of Shachrit accomplish that? Reply

Rachel Barenblat Lanesboro, MA November 29, 2011

Thanks Thank you for this series! I'll be sharing part of this teaching in my shul's Torah study this coming Shabbat, to spark our conversation about the sulam and about our prayers. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman June 2, 2011

Re: enriching the prayer experience Say the basics, each day, and say them at a pace that you can focus. Slowly switch from English to Hebrew as you learn the meaning of the words. Add on step by step.

The basics are the morning blessings and the Shma Yisrael (at least the first paragraph). In a later installment, I hope to provide a chart that will give you an idea of how to build up from there. Reply

Peg Sills Auburn, CA/USA May 20, 2011

Climbing Jacob's Ladder Brilliant! Thanks so much. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman May 19, 2011

For Simchah in Zichron, Israel I hope to get to that in the series. At the very least, every person should say each morning:
1. Modeh Ani
2. "I hereby accept upon myself the mitzvah of 'love your fellow as yourself.'"
3. The morning blessings
4. Shma Yisrael (at least the first paragraph) Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Jerusalem May 19, 2011

enriching the prayer experience I am, some say, a baal teshuvah, and I am very interested in developing my capacity to ascend during prayer.
I can read (most of) the prayers in the siddur in Hebrew, but I am not fluent in Hebrew. I have also read them in English translation, so I have a general idea of what I am saying when I am saying the Hebrew words. But I imagine that not knowing the literal meaning of each word, and each word phrase, detracts from my kavanah.
Unfortunately, I am older and have had a traumatic brain injury, so I do not feel that I will succeed in gaining Hebrew fluency.
What suggestions can you offer me to make my tefillah richer? Reply

Anonymous a May 19, 2011

too long why not make prayer a few pages with the essence of each stage and do them properly instead of 30-40 minutes of mummbling? Reply

simchah zichron, israel May 18, 2011

Ladder of Prayer Dear Rabbi Freeman, Thanks for all your illuminating articles. Can you detail which prayers should a woman say daily to facilitate "the climb".BTW, re Mordi's comment re Hodu, Reb, Shusterman in her lesson on Counting Omer connected(via roots) Hodu & Modeh Ani.
We are all climbing the spiritual ladder-may we all go higher & higher. From Israel Simchah Reply

Gnarlodious Santa Fe March 21, 2011

What comes down must go up... Yes, I go to the synagogue. And yes, I am aware they are praying. But most of the time I am lost in a reverie of divine inspiration. And the inspiration is not always so agreeable, Sometimes it is downright contrarian.

All I can assume is that this is the intended purpose of the prayer being prayed. After all, the angels do not just come down, they go up too. Inspiration is a two-way activity. But... if you prevent the angels from coming down the ladder they cannot go back up. Doubts, ambiguity and confusion are the messengers coming down the ladder. And they return with your inspiration. Even if those inspirations are contrarian. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman March 16, 2011

Re: Modeh Ani Question You're right on track. Keep on reading to the next three installments and you'll have you answer. Reply

Mordi March 10, 2011

Modeh Ani question Often I pose a question and doesn't need an answer. But the Modeh Ani inclusion or exclusion to the prayer ladder really does interest me.

Modeh Ani is a prayer. We say it as soon as we awake. It would seem to precede the Hodu. Not only that, it would seem to be on a level with the Shemoneh Esrei.

Is it possible that Modeh Ani is on a circuit. It is there when we rise. It leaves when we sleep. And it is there when we rise. It is like a circuit of the soul. Earth to Heaven back to Earth, a daily rotation.

Your task is tough. As you remark, you are teaching students at widely disparate levels. i don't know what my level is, but i am probably like most; you succeed in reaching all of us. The neat thing is that you teach as if each of us is your only student. Rare talent. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 10, 2011

the prayer shawl: tallit it's interesting to me, to think about fringes, and about how they relate to remembering, to honoring the Divine, because I see in metaphor. When I wear a scarf with fringes, draped around my neck, I think about this, as something holy. It occurs to me.

As does any scroll. Torah. When I am in the woods watching the unfurling of a fern, the beauty of the tightly wrapped buds, beginning to open, I think, Torah.

So my world is dominated by deep metaphoric connects up and down all Creation. It is difficult to explicate this.

When I look at a tree, I see the menorah, and when I look at so much out there, that is so shaped, I just see it. For me it's so palpable. The Hebrew letters.

I know many artists do portray this, but I am saying there is something very deep in all of this. Profound. Sacred. About AWE.

And as bulbs are emergent in spring, so I think of bulbs popping, as in light bulbs. And I see a vase, that bulbous part, as also a bulb, with water, brimming with flowers.

Poetry! Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman March 10, 2011

Author's Comment Many of these reader comments are very helpful. I try to keep in mind a certain audience as I write. It's a wide gamut—from those just testing the waters to those already swimming laps. The comments provide a clearer image of my target, and hopefully make for a better aim.

The series will comprise both the soul and body, meaning ideas and practice of tefillah. My guess is that it will take until Rosh Hashanah to get this done. Hang in there, and keep the comments coming. Reply

Anonymous Guilford, CT via March 10, 2011

thank you to Rabbi Thank you so much Rabbi. Reply

Steve Katz Melbourne, AU March 9, 2011

G-d is the withinness G-d is within, accessed via the inner sense of empathy, also via intuition, prophetic insight, visions, dreams, impressions, impulses, feeling. We are all interconnected. Reply

Mordi March 9, 2011

Modeh Ani question Where is Modeh Ani on the prayer ladder ? Or why isn't it ? Reply

Carmen March 9, 2011

Walking prayers Jews are walking prayers.
We just need to understand and internalize the
importance to adapt ourselves to the formats of our faith,as Jewish prayers for instance,in order to develop correctly according to G-ds will.
A kind of harnessing.

Jewish faith is the more appealing and beautifull of all thoughts in the world.There is nothing else to ,even slightly, compare! Reply

Anonymous March 9, 2011

okay I should have read the two recommended cites before my last two posts. Was lazy.

They answer my questions as follows:

Want a stronger relationship with G-d? Put in the practice, both time and effort.

Learn the steps upward one by one. Refine your behaviours. Keep your mind on where you are and where you want to go, as in what you want in your goal/relationship with G-d,

Let's see: Modeh Ani, Shabbat shul attendance and prayers (Hodu, Praises, Shema, Shemoneh Esrei etc.), Yahrzeit observances as in Maftir and Devar Torah, bite your tongue more often than not (that is tough, but your video specified it) little things that make others happier, Tallis, tefillin, mezzuzah, festivals, Torah study, awareness of the plan, new spititual opportunities ... the list is endless ...but not pointless/hopeless.

Training/jumping through hoops in preparation for the ring of fire is real to me.

Thank you. Reply

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