Encountering HaMakom as We Climb Life’s Ladder
By Rabbi Toba August, AJRCA Professor
Years ago, I was tired playing ‘Chutes & Ladders,’ one of my daughter’s favorite board games, and was delighted when we moved on to ‘Life’ and ‘Clue.’
So it surprised me to learn that there was much more to the ‘Chutes and Ladders’ game than I imagined. Rabbi Michal Shekel wrote in a Dvar Torah that this game is meant to teach children how to be decent human beings. She explained that this game originated in India to educate young Hindus. “If you behaved well”, Shekel wrote, “you ascended to a higher level of life; inappropriate behavior resulted in reincarnation on a lower level.”
This week’s Parsha, Vayetze, describes a famous dream involving a ladder, and like the game, there was up and down movement which needs to be understood. After tricking his brother for the birthright, Jacob escapes Esau’s wrath and sets out to return to his parents’ birthplace in Haran. Alone, tired and uncertain about his future, Jacob stumbled upon a certain place, (HaMakom), put a stone under his head, slept and started to dream.
He dreamt of a “sulam” – a ladder or a staircase, that was set on the ground and its top reached to the heavens. Angels were going up and down on it, and God was standing beside him speaking about the covenant made to his ancestors.
In a midrash (Levitcus Rabbah 8:1) when a Roman woman asks what God has been up to since creation, Rabbi Jose ben Halafta answered that God has been building ladders for some people to ascend and others to descend. But going deeper, a Hassidic interpretation focuses on the end of the verse. Angels were ascending and descending on it –“bo”. Bo can mean “within it” or “within him.” The ascending and descending, the commentary explains, depends on our prayers and on our actions. If we behave a certain way, the entire world is elevated, if not the world is lowered and degraded.
Jacob realized he was in a holy place, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expanded on the symbolism in the Hassidic commentary saying: “Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement which surges throughout the entire universe.”
Jacob’s dream symbolized his prayer. He did not want to be guilty, terrified or alone on his journey. When he “stumbles upon” – another definition of the Hebrew vayifga – he is encountering “Hamakom” – an epithet for God’s eternal presence. But since God is everyone, Jacob was “stumbling” upon a new insight. He realized that wherever he was, God was with him, and he would not be alone. Though he was on the move, he knew now that he would find his next “makom” –the place of his awakening to his true self, a place to find his prayers for forgiveness. He understood that his actions mattered and was ready to “ascend” the ladder of holiness and be a blessing.
May we too find our Makom, one step at a time, knowing that on the journey of life, climbing a ladder means we often slip and miss a step. Though we fall back a few rungs, we can recover, keep climbing and access the Makom within us, where heaven and earth touch.