One of the most striking Biblical dreams is that of Jacob and the ladder. Jacob is about to embark on his personal exile from his family and land to enter the world of his corrupt uncle Laban. Just before he leaves Israel he rests on the future Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was also the site of the binding of his father, Isaac. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Classically, this scene is interpreted as the departure and elevation of the angels that accompanied Jacob in Israel and the descent of the angels that would accompany him in his journeys. Kabbalistically this “ladder,” or sulam, represents the ladder of worlds, the Seder Hishtalshalut, and is the connection between G‑d and the ethereal with our physical world. The conceptual ladder suggests that one may both ascend and descend. The purpose of ascent is to gain a higher perspective, a view from above.
The purpose of descent is to fulfill the purpose in creation. In fact, both are essential. Only when one ascends the ladder of creation does one perceive true reality, allowing a sharper and more focused perspective upon re-entry into earthly spheres.
This ascent and descent is traditionally called prayer. On the most basic level, prayer is turning to G‑d to request one’s needs. On a Kabbalistic level, the aim of prayer is to attach the soul to its source, and to refine and elevate the crass nature of one’s baser drives and passions. These two goals go hand in hand. Through elevation and attachment—ascent—one may refine one’s character through a deeper understanding of the purpose of creation. Hence the Kabbalists write that the knowledge of this chain of creation is a great Mitzvah, in that it brings man to “know G‑d,” love, and stand in awe of Him.
In truth, no mortal being has any notion of G‑d Himself. What is meant by the phrase to “know G‑d” is to be fully cognizant and sensitive to the Shechinah, and to totally integrate that presence in all echelons of human experience.
This is why we pray each day. Man stands at the crossroads of creation. His body is made from earth while his soul was literally breathed into him by G‑d. Man embodies heaven and earth and in his daily schedule oscillates between the two.
At times he is spiritually uplifted and detached from the mundane.
At other times he is totally immersed in the materialistic quagmire. How does he maintain a healthy Human/Divine equilibrium? The mystic approach to this question is from a totally different and fresh perspective.
Kabbalah explains that this fusion occurs in the reactor of prayer. Upon ascending the ladder, and touring the “higher worlds” while rising level after level, the view from above is stunning. The material world below is almost a joke, pathetically insignificant in the huge Divine Light accessible in the higher realms. At the height of meditation the soul experiences a spiritual ecstasy so powerful that it wishes to expire and leave the earthly container.
And then, at the height of the flight, it dissolves in awe, standing before the Almighty Himself. All notions of ego and self are dispelled and the pervading feeling is one of Atzmut only. At that level, one senses that the purpose of creation is for the Nefesh Elokit to descend through the worlds, become enclothed in the earthly body, and immersed in daily routine engagement. In Judaism, action is the main thing. The mystic is not the ascetic with his head in the clouds; rather he understands that a deep knowledge of the higher realms brings one to a much richer involvement in this world. It is specifically in the “lowest of all realms” that one can make a dwelling place for the Divine. G‑d desires to have an abode in this world.
This is achieved by the soul’s descent and its transformation of physical darkness into spiritual light, and of the bitter into the sweet.
We may now understand why Kabbalah anatomically maps out the pathways of Heaven. Through studying this chain order and meditating upon it, one becomes totally sensitized to the Shechinah, as well as becoming aware of not only one’s own purpose, but of the purpose of all of Creation.