A common question: Is it worth investing effort to reach great heights when there is always the risk of failing? How many of us avoid trying too hard because our fear of failure?
Have you ever felt that life’s disappointments have broken you to the point of no return? After falling again and again, you simply don’t have the strength to try again – fearing yet another fall. After continual failures, you finally throw up your hands and say the effort to climb is not worth the pain.
Jacob’s famous dream, in this week’s Torah portion, carries a powerful lesson of hope and confidence – one that can overcome the fear of failure.
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 Torah portion, Genesis 28:12).
The Midrash explains that Jacob was shown the rise and fall of future empires that would rule the world. He saw the ascent and descent of the Babylonians, the Medes and the Greeks. But when it came to the Roman Empire (Edom) Jacob only saw their ascent, without any defined time span of their rule. Jacob thus was frightened –perhaps their power will not wane. At that moment G-d said “do not be afraid my servant Jacob,” though the Roman Empire will rise, it will ultimately also fall.
Then G-d invited Jacob to climb the ladder himself. But Jacob was afraid: “Just as the others ultimately descended,” Jacob said, “I fear that I too will fall.” “Suddenly he saw G-d standing over him,” saying, “do not be afraid my servant Jacob, I promise you that if you climb you and your children will not fall.” But Jacob still declined fearing that he was unworthy. Said G-d: “Had you trusted me and climbed you would never have fallen. But since you did not, your children will be ruled by the four empires. But do not be afraid, because at the end these empires will fall and you will finally ascend.” (1)
Everything that happened to the patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] is an indication for their children, (2) to teach us about the future. The patriarchs were shown what would happen to their descendants. (3)
Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children, to teach us about the future.
The same is true with Jacob’s ladder:
Throughout the journey of each of our lives, especially as we embark on a new voyage, we will be shown a ladder. As we are ready to undertake a new challenge, we are presented with an opportunity to climb to higher places.
But at the same time we also see how others have climbed and fallen on the ladder of history. Because every ladder goes two ways: up and down.
Therein lies two critical lessons:
When we see our enemy in power with no end in sight, know that his day will come.
But the most important lesson is this: No matter how difficult it may be, we must never be afraid to climb, even if it means the risk of falling.
However, this is easier said than done. Why? Because we are “asleep” – as Jacob slept when he had his dream; and when we are asleep we are unaware of G-d’s presence. Jacob was disturbed when he fell asleep on the Temple Mount: “Surely G-d is in this place and I knew it not.” In this state of spiritual sleep, we do not have the confidence, the strength to overcome challenges. We – due to our own limited sleep consciousness – become part of the problem instead of the solution.
But then we awake, and “suddenly” we see G-d standing over us (“suddenly he saw G-d standing over him”), and reminds us to not 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.”
But even when we are “asleep” (or half asleep) we are often shown a vision – a dream of a ladder – upon which the powers of history have been climbing and descending from the beginning of time. And now we are invited to climb the ladder.
By showing us (the Jacob within each of us) this vision we are being prepared – as the original Jacob was prepared – for what is to come, and is giving 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, by waking up and connecting to the Divine.
That will give us the power to climb and climb, and then… climb again.
(1) Midrash Tanchuma beginning of this week’s portion. Vayikra Rabba 29:2. Shemos Rabba 32:7.
(2) Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecho 9. Bereishis Rabba 40:6.
(3) Ramban Lech Lecho 12:6. Bechayei on this week’s portion 28:12.