Jacob’s Ladder – The Rise & Fall of Nations


How to Fortify Yourself Before Facing the Unknown

Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children
– Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecho 9.  Bereishis Rabba 40:6

All the events that happened with the Patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] come to teach us about the future…they were shown what would happen to their descendants
Ramban Lech Lecho 12:6. Bechayei on this week’s portion 28:12

[Jacob]  dreamed and saw a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. G-d’s angels were ascending and descending on it (this week’s portion, Genesis 28:12)  – He was shown the future empires that would rule the world
– Midrash Tanchuma beginning of this week’s portion. Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 35 (cited in Bechaya and Ramban ibid). See Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:3)

Since October 7th I have been sharing commentary on the historical events of our times. Being trained in Torah study my entire life, I naturally gravitate to the Bible and its commentaries to make sense of this chaos and uncertainty.

One can sense that there is something happening that is unfathomably larger than any one man – or even all of us together – can comprehend. When events reach and affect a critical mass, as the events since October 7th have done, it is simply impossible to predict or even project what will happen. Particularly when the enemy is so obfuscated – cloaked in the shadows of deep-rooted religious beliefs; ideologies that are foreign to many of us; expressed in the twisted arms of terrorism; a war being fought in unfamiliar hills of the Middle East — no one can imagine what, if anything, will come next.

When conventional paradigms don’t work, we have no other choice but to step back and look for a new perspective, and it always helps to stare into history and connect the dots. For me this means delving into the Torah, a document that has been traveling with us for thousands of years.

And in it we do find all the seeds for the characters and players of today. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob.

To my own surprise each week as I sit down to study the weekly Torah portion, the Biblical stories all come alive in context of today’s events.

But, as complacency began to creep back into our lives, and we all so want to return to some semblance of normalcy (whatever that means), to the world of “October 6,” I must confess that my own denial began whispering intriguing thoughts in my ear, seducing me into the lull of “what more is there to say? You have already outlined the major players: Abraham, father of nations; Ishmael, father of Arabs/Muslims; Isaac, father of Jews; Esau, father of the West – and their interactions which foretell the events of our times. What more can possibly be said?!”

Yet, I have a self-imposed necessity to look into the Torah portion each week, and there lies the undoing of my complacency: When you read the continuing saga, you just cannot ignore its profound relevance.

And so, my commentary continues.

After Esau’s notorious marriage to Ishmael’s daughter (at the end of last week’s portion), the Torah gets back to Jacob’s journey to Charan, which as you may recall was for two reasons: 1) To escape the wrath of his brother Esau following Jacob’s stealing of his blessings 2) To find a wife for himself.

Vayeitzei Yaakov m’Beer Sheva vayelech Charono,” Jacob leaves Beersheba and travels toward Charan. In this journey Jacob has his renowned dream where he sees the vision of a “ladder standing on the ground and its top (head) reached up toward heaven. G-d’s angels were ascending and descending on it.”

G-d then promises Jacob,

I am G-d of Abraham your father and G-d of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be [plentiful] like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.”

G-d continues: “I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this soil. I will not turn aside from you until I have fully kept this promise to you.”

The parsha continues with Jacob going on his way, arriving in Charan, marrying and building his family there – eleven of the twelve tribes. Jacob spends twenty years in Charan, working for his father-in-law Laban as a sheperd, tending to his large flocks. This week’s chapter concludes with Jacob and his family leaving Charan and returning to the land of his fathers, Canaan, only to confront Esau in next week’s Torah portion.

Jacob and Esau represent “two nations” in a perpetual struggle. In cosmic terms they embody the battle between matter and spirit, between your body and soul, between the G-dly and the mundane. In historical terms – the battle between religion and science, between faith and modern (Western) culture, between the religious and the secular. In personal terms – the battle between selfishness and dedication to a higher calling.

The battle between Esau and Jacob lays the ground for all the battles to come in future generations. By understanding this conflict and how it is dealt with, we can learn how we should act when facing our own challenges, our own version of the Jacob/Esau confrontation.

The battle lines between Esau and Jacob are drawn in last week’s portion, when Jacob ‘buys’ the birthright from Esau and then proceeds to ‘steal’ his blessings (in Esau’s words: “first he took my birthright and now he took my blessing”). Esau is furious and wants to kill his brother.

But before a confrontation takes place Jacob is sent away by his parents to Charan to get married. During the twenty years that Jacob is away he is in essence preparing himself for the final and inevitable confrontation with Esau.

Spirit and matter are diametrically opposed to each other. Before you are ready to confront the harsh material world, you must bolster and strengthen yourself by building a home and family, a nurturing oasis – a secure launch pad, if you will, which imbues you with confidence to achieve all your goals. A soaring bird must have a secure nest. A true home is a place where you are completely comfortable. A healthy childhood is the time in your life when you are nurtured and protected. This allows you to build strength and develop resources, defensive and offensive tools to then go out into a difficult adult world and not only not be hurt, but with the power and confidence to transform the material world into a Divine home.

Before Jacob could face Esau, he built his home in Charan. No small feat, mind you. Charan is a corrupt place. “Charan” actually means “wrath of G-d,” signifying the G-dlessness of Charan. Laban is an artist of deceit and deception. Jacob does not have an easy time. Nevertheless he prevails and builds a home, a powerful and nurturing domain.

Jewish mysticism teaches that there are stages in refining yourself and the world. First Jacob begins with the relatively easier task with Laban in Charan, and only then can he approach the more difficult Esau challenge. Jacob’s work in tending to Laban’s flocks of sheep represents the building of the spiritual cosmic order, the structure and building blocks that give us the tools to then enter and transform the material universe and confront the “Esau’s” of our lives.[1]

Thus Jacobs’s journey to Charan in this week’s Torah portion signifies the beginning of each of our journeys into the real world. Following Esau’s attempt to join forces with Ishmael against Isaac and Jacob by marrying Ishmael’s daughter, Jacob escapes to build a home and fortify himself in order to be able to face the Esau battles ahead.

As Jacob leaves Israel (Canaan) to travel to Charan, G-d shows him a vision of angels climbing and descending a ladder. He shows him the rise and fall of nations to come, how they would climb and dominate the world, and then fall  – a similar vision to the one G-d showed his grandfather Abraham[2]. And G-d tells him not to be afraid.

I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this soil. I will not turn aside from you until I have fully kept this promise to you.”

By showing Jacob this vision G-d is preparing him – as he prepared Abraham – for what is to come, and is giving him, and all of us, the tools to face these challenges and prevail.

The message for each of us today is clear:

To face the battles of life you must first fortify your inner life. You must build a strong inner core – a home and family that provides you with the security and confidence to handle any force or enemy from without.

As we face enemies – known or unknown, and especially the worst enemy of all, the enemy of fear and uncertainty – we must build inner security, a safe home.

A true home begins in your soul. You must have a place inside of you where you are completely comfortable. Peace at the center – a place where you feel at home with your calling and your purpose. You must make your peace with G-d, peace with your soul – peace with the mission for which you were uniquely chosen and sent to earth.

When you allow G-d in, G-d tells you: “I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go.” No matter the challenge, regardless which enemy or which battle – when you connect to G-d you have the power to overcome and conquer with a buoyant spirit[3] anything and everything.

Jacob’s vision promises us that the nations that dominate the ladder will ultimately fall. When you lack faith and trust in G-d, then you become enslaved and victimized by dominating nations and forces around us.

Prevail will be those that climb the ladder together with G-d. With faith in G-d you can conquer all, and you then climb the ladder and never descend.[4]

[1] See maamar “im lovon garti” – Ohr HaTorah Vayishlach 231a. 5742. “Vayishlach” 5666. 5673.

[2] Bechaya and Ramban on our portion, 28:12.

[3] See Rashi 29:1.

[4] See Vayikra Rabba 29:2.


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David Harold Chester
7 months ago

Why did the angels need a ladder? Surely they could have flown up and down with greater ease.

7 months ago

It is such a blessing to be able to communicate with Hashem directly and hear him with your own senses. I think that if human beings connected with Hashem with their senses, they would behave much better. Why we have such in inclination to the negative always puzzles me. It is SO MUCH easier to be nice, kind, honest, caring, giving, etc. than the other way around.

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