Innovation is a hallmark of the human spirit. Innovators, the pioneers of new ideas, challenge the status quo and aim to improve upon it. Each generation distinguishes itself through its introduction of new and improved innovations.

How many of us still use typewriters or cassette recorders? What were once amazing innovations fall out of fashion, eventually becoming obsolete. Such are the consequences of innovation.

Yet even in today’s technological world, some things possess timeless staying power. Take, for example, the ladder—the subject of Jacob’s dream in Parshat Vayeitzei. The Hebrew word for “ladder” is sulam. A permutation of the Hebrew letters of sulam uncovers a deep insight that explains the ladder’s lasting significance. By rearranging the letters of sulam—samech, lamed, mem—we reveal another word, semel, which means “symbol.”

What is the symbolism of the ladder? This simplistic device for climbing up or down has not undergone a conceptual alteration since its inception.

Metaphorically, the Torah expands the simple function of the ladder to include imagery that bridges the gap between heaven and earth. Through visual imagery, we can grasp the concept of a transition.

The Bridge Vs. the Ladder

Life presents us with various transitions that challenge the status quo of our comfort levels. We may find ourselves at a crossroads, recognizing the need for change but unsure of which road to take. We may feel unprepared and unequipped to navigate the unfamiliar journey we face ahead. How do we best transverse the liminal space between where we are and where we would like to be? What are the best means to help us reach our desired goals and destination? How do we combat the feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability that can confront us along the way, eclipsing the guiding light of faith?

When navigating an unknown terrain or transition, there are two choices: You can cross over it by bridging the gap from point A to point B or transcend it. Often, the image of a bridge is used to represent passing from one stage in life to the next. Yet while we are changing our place, we are not necessarily being changed or changing ourselves. While remaining at the same altitude, we cannot transcend our present state of being or perspective.

In contrast, while ascending or descending on a ladder, rung by rung, we change our altitude incrementally. We are either moving up or down, never remaining static. Our vantage point either broadens as we ascend or constricts as we descend.

The Ladder Symbolizing the Rise and Fall of Nations

Jacob’s simple ladder foreshadows the trajectory of human development. The Midrash describes how we are being foretold of the continuous rise and fall of various nations that will command the world’s center stage for a time and then sink into oblivion. Israel’s oppressors are among them, as we are forewarned of their prominence. Rashi brings out that the ascending angels represent those spiritual forces that accompany Jacob and the Jewish people while in our homeland, Eretz Yisrael. They must return heavenward when Jacob leaves the Holy land but are replaced by other angelic forces best suited to safeguard the Jewish nation when dwelling outside of the land. Rashi’s explanation foretells our eventual merit to settle in the land of Israel.

The Ladder of Prayer: Transitioning Between Heaven and Earth

Jacob’s ladder also widens our perspectives on the power of prayer as a vehicle for navigating the transition between Heaven and Earth. Meaningful prayer creates a spiritual imprint; such prayer leaves its impression upon the fabric of both physical time and spiritual eternity. Our prayers are activated only to the degree that we are mindful and sincere. In Jacob’s dream, they are depicted as angelic forms rising. Our sages tell us that our prayers create accompanying angels or energies of varying strengths. The sincerity and sheer intent of each heart propels it to ascend the rungs of physicality. A prayer can pierce through the finite as it yearns and strives to reach the infinite realms.

The Ladder as a Spiritual GPS: Charting Spiritual Growth

The image of Jacob’s ladder holds the potential to be utilized as a device to chart and measure the progress and course of spiritual growth and development. Each rung either ascending or descending is a visual image that indicates where one’s spiritual altitude is at any given moment. As a mental cue, Jacob’s ladder can provide powerful assistance in developing cognitive and spiritual muscle. As physical resistance stimulates the body to build muscle, spiritual resistance promotes the development of inner strength and resilience. “Raising the spiritual bar,” symbolized by the rungs of Jacob’s ladder, can give one a visual image of where they are holding in terms of thoughts and reactions towards life’s daily challenges and provocations.

Does my choice of words in any given situation denigrate or elevate my place on the ladder? Am I ascending or descending through the way I have expressed myself to others? How do the relationships in my life affect the altitude of my attitude? Which way am I moving, up or down? Do my thoughts raise my altitude, thereby improving my attitude, or lower and diminish it?

Jacob’s ladder holds the potential to be updated into a spiritual GPS, actually calibrating the direction of our thoughts and actions. It can serve to chart our path to keep us on course and to reach our ultimate destination. It’s the oldest, yet the newest app that’s out there. Ascending Jacob’s ladder can represent a lifetime of spiritual journeying. From a macro to a micro level, this ancient vision remains an enduring symbol of timeless relevance and is a portal from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.

Making It Relevant

  1. Visualize yourself climbing up or down a ladder. The ladder charts your personal growth. What rung do you see yourself on? Are you ascending or descending from the position you were on previously? Recognize that you are not static. You may be on a low rung but ascending, or on a high rung descending. Would you rather be descending from a high rung or ascending from a low rung? Also, remember that if you slip down a rung, you can climb back up … or even go higher.
  2. Throughout each day, assess where you are on your personal ladder, in regard to thinking positively rather than negatively.
  3. Be mindful of your responses to provocation or challenge. Visualize your reactions and outward behaviors as occupying a rung on the ladder. In what direction are you moving? How can you alter your direction?