While Jacob was on his way to Charan, fleeing his brother Esau, he went to sleep and dreamed of G‑d’s reassurance that he would eventually return to Israel in safety. His dream began with the famous vision of the ladder, as the verse states:

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G‑d were ascending and descending upon it.1

There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the ladder. Some say the ladder represents prayer. Jacob slept on the Temple Mount, the place where all Jewish prayers ascend to G‑d, and G‑d was showing Jacob the awesome power of prayer: its ability to connect heaven and earth.

Others explain that the ladder is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, the mountain on which the Torah was given, and the message to Jacob was that the Torah, the Divine will and wisdom, is the ladder that connects the person to heaven.

But why did Jacob need to see the image of the ladder specifically at this point in his life, on his way out of Israel, while fleeing to the morally debased Charan?

Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen, a 17th century kabbalist of Safed, Israel, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself.

Jacob was leaving the comfort and holiness of the land of Israel and was heading to a land that was spiritually foreign to his way of life. On Jacob’s way, G‑d showed him the vision of a ladder in order to impart to him that he himself had the ability to connect the lowest parts of the earth to heaven. While his grandfather Abraham was commanded to leave Charan and migrate to Israel, Jacob would make the opposite journey. Jacob’s life’s mission was not to flee the negativity but rather to face it and challenge it head on.

Jacob, like all his descendants, is compared to a ladder. No matter where he might be, no matter how foreign the environment might seem, he was capable of erecting a ladder that would connect heaven and earth, he was able to build a bridge that would allow the epitome of holiness to affect even the most distant of places.

There is another dimension to the comparison of Jacob and the ladder.

The Kabbalah explains that each of the three patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotions: Abraham represented the attribute of love; Isaac the attribute of awe and reverence; and Jacob the attribute of compassion.

The attribute of compassion, even more than love, is the ultimate bridge-builder. Love is a very powerful emotion, yet its reach is limited to a specific audience. A person loves that which is attractive to him or her. A person does not love everybody and everything; love is selective, it is awakened and attracted to specific people or objects that, for whatever reason, touch the heart in a specific way.

Compassion, on the other hand, can reach anybody. It may be a person whom you never met, whose language you don't understand, yet the moment you sense that the person is suffering, something in your heart will connect to the person with empathy and compassion.

In fact, compassion has the power to unleash love. You may have known someone for many years and felt no connection to him or her. Yet as soon as tragedy strikes and you feel compassion for the person, suddenly, you begin to see how wonderful the person is. You begin to feel a feeling of closeness and love toward the person. How does that happen? The love flows over the bridge created by compassion.

We each have a Jacob within ourselves, a Jacob that allows us to empathize with people who may seem very different from ourselves. The Jacob within us recognizes and connects to the soul within others, connecting heaven and earth.