“Step by Step”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, ‘11
“…even Angells, whose home is Heaven, and who are winged too, yet had a Ladder to goe to heaven by steps.” —-John Donne, Devotions
The profound symbolism that attaches to Jacob begins when G-d reveals that two peoples reside in Rebekah’s womb. In the context of number symbolism, two symbolizes duality, tension and complexity; G-d’s response to Rebekah in Toldot foreshadows the irony that is the essence of her younger and favored twin son. As the third patriarch with whom G-d makes a covenant, Jacob will become Yisrael, the very embodiment of a life-long struggle to achieve the symbolic harmony that is encoded into the number three—the number of including and synthesizing, the creation of a new entity.
Of all the rich symbolism that Jacob’s saga offers, perhaps the most beautifully promising is his dream of Sulam Yaakov. Sulam is a hapax legomenon—a word that appears only once in the Tanach, in Parsha Vayetzei (“and he went out/left.”) It is not surprising that there are differing opinions as to the word’s etymology and meaning—stairway, steps, ramp, ladder. In its unique usage, Sulam commands our attention and challenges us to consider the message that this dream brings to Jacob’s soul, to the inner soul-expedition that parallels his literal journey of leaving home and encountering the world.
Berakhot 55b reminds us that “A dream uninterpreted is a letter unread.”
In the language of dream symbolism, a ladder or staircase suggests that the dreamer will achieve growth in social stature. On a deeper level, dreaming of a ladder or staircase indicates a new self-understanding, a connection between levels of consciousness. Sulam Yaakov represents exactly this linkage. It is a structure that supports the kinetic image of ascending and descending angels moving towards their dual destinations,
forming a nexus of Heaven and Earth and demonstrating that with the exertion of energy, goals can be reached. Sulam Yaakov reminds us that levels and ladders and stairways and steps encode the hopeful reality of fluidity—they remind us that energetic connectivity is Divinely-ordained.
The image of Sulam Yaakov is all around us, in poetry by John Donne and Denise Levertov and paintings by Michael Willman, William Blake and Joaquin Murillo. Jacob’s Ladder has given its name to the ornamental flowering plant polemonium caeruleum, the dynamic wooden folk toy and the American quilt pattern that conveys hopeful possibilities through its arrangement of triangular fabric pieces. The popularity of the image of Sulam Yaacov reminds us that we create meaning from taking one intentional step at a time and that the messages that our souls send us offer us opportunities to grow in awareness and understanding.
A portion of Talmud Berachot 55b’s prayer regarding dreams says: “I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it means. May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that all my dreams be, for me and all Israel, for good, whether I have dreamt about myself, or about others, or others have dreamt about me. If they are good, strengthen and reinforce them, and may they be fulfilled… If, though, they need healing, heal them… Turn all my dreams about me and about all Israel to good; protect me, be gracious to me and accept me. Amen.”
May all our dreams be good and growthful dreams.