Angel's Ascent Accentuated

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the most fascinating segments of Parshat Vayeitzei is Yaakov Avinu Avinu's dream as he is fleeing from Esau and going to Charan. Resting overnight in the place destined to be the future site of the Beit Hamikdosh, Yaakov Avinu sleeps and dreams of a ladder, its feet resting on the earth but its head in the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. Above it all is Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself. When Yaakov Avinu awakes, he realizes that unbeknownst to him, this is sacred ground and the gate to heaven. 

This enigmatic dream is both prophetic and deeply mystifying. What is the message of these angels, both as prophecy and for us as individuals? But first, how can we understand heavenly angels initially ascending from the bottom of the ladder, planted on the earth, and then angels descending from the top of the ladder rising down to earth? We will attempt to answer these questions, as least partially, using the three platforms of existence denoted by the Hebrew acronym עש"ן/ephemeral smoke. Everything exists in time, and space, and within the individual: ע =עולם, the world/space; ש = שנה/year/time; נ/ן =נפש/The individual soul.

Who were these angels on earth? Some of the commentators suggests that these were the angels sent to destroy Sodom. Because they had attributed the destruction to themselves rather than to Hashem, they were exiled to remain on earth. Only now were they permitted to reascend to heaven.

The most famous interpretation of Yaakov Avinu's dream is that the angels represent four regimes that will dominate Bnei Yisroel; Babylon, Medea/Persia, Greece and Rome. The first three ascend the number of rungs representing the years they will dominate, and then they descend and fall. But the angel representing the current, fourth exile, Rome, keeps ascending and does not descend, does not seem to fall ever.

Rav Dessler gives us greater insight into this medrash. While each angel represents a different diaspora, the first three angels/empires descended through the natural flow of history. But the fourth angel, representing Edom/Rome, will not fall through natural means. Edom is connected to revelation of Moshiach, and as such its downfall is connected to the beginning of the arrival of the Messianic era. The sign of its imminent downfall will be that the foundations of tranquil life begin to erode. Individuals will be totally afraid of destruction. Then the haughtiness of Edom will crack and fall, and the light of Moshiach will be found.

Yaakov Avinu himself was now entering his personal exile, experiencing in his own life what the history of his descendants would be like, suggests Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z”tl. When Yaakov Avinu saw that this last angel was not descending, he became afraid. But Hashem was above the ladder, in control, and Hashem reassured Yaakov Avinu that He would always be with Bnei Yisroel, that eventually his descendants would inherit this land upon which Yaakov Avinu now was lying, the land already promised to Avraham and Yitzchak. Further, Hashem promised Yaakov Avinu that his descendants would never be destroyed, for, like the dust of the earth, they would spread to the four corners of the earth and, like the dust, no matter how long they will be trampled upon, they would never disappear.

Rashi notes that there were two sets of angels. One group was assigned to Eretz Yisroel, while the other group were angels assigned for the lands outside Eretz Yisroel. Yaakov Avinu is now at a crossroads of his life, and the angels of Eretz Yisroel were leaving his side while the angels outside Eretz Yisroel were descending to continue the journey with him. However, Rabbi Sorotskin z”tl raises an interesting question. Yaakov Avinu Avinu was not actually leaving Eretz Yisroel. How could there be a change of guard here? Rabbi Sorotskin z”tl suggests that when Yaakov Avinu was asleep, Hashem had symbolically folded all of Eretz Yisroel under his head, and so he was entirely at the borders of the contracted Eretz Yisroel for the angels to change shifts.

This explanation raises yet another question. In Taam Vodaas, Rabbi Sternbach asks why it was necessary to change the angels at all. Couldn't the original angels continue the journey with Yaakov Avinu Avinu? Rabbi Sternbach explains that angels are equipped in proportion to the place in which they will serve. Since Hashem maintains a balance between the holy and the profane, between good and evil [in order to optimize free choice, CKS], Eretz Yisroel has an equal possibility for both sanctity and impurity. Therefore, its angels must be much stronger than the angels in other lands where both sanctity and impurity are weaker. When you overcome the impurity of Eretz Yisroel, you create a special energy that brings down special love and blessings from Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

However, if there was a change of guard, was there not a moment when there were no angels with Yaakov Avinu Avinu, as they were perhaps passing each other on the ladder? Rabbi Schorr notes that this was indeed the case, but Yaakov Avinu Avinu was lying in the site of the future Kadosh Kodoshim/Holy of Holies of the Beit Hamikdosh. This space was so sacred that only the Kohein Gadol/High Priest could enter, and only once a year on Yom Kippur. Even the angels could not enter. In this place at this time, no angel was necessary to connect Man with God.

So, just as there is a place of extreme sanctity, so there is a time of sanctity. Like Yom Kippur, Shabbos is sanctified time, writes Rabbi Weinberger. As Shabbos enters, writes Rabbi Kofman z”tl, we greet the Shabbos angels with Shalom Aleichem. But as we get fully into Shabbat, we bid the angels of the week goodbye, for we are entering the inner sanctum of Shabbat, to be spent connecting with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. In this dream interpretation, Yaakov Avinu is being shown spiritual angels. Shabbos itself provides the protection of angels, as we sing, "If I will safeguard Shabbat, Shabbat will safeguard me." Yaakov Avinu is symbolically leaving the sanctity and peace of Shabbat, the Be'er Sheva/ the wellspring of the Seventh Day [of sanctity], and going to Charan, the anger of the rest of the week, adds the Netivot Shalom.

The ladder itself represents the connection of heaven and earth, not just for the angels, but for ourselves as well. We have our feet firmly planted on earth, but our souls reach the heavens. Shabbat is the day of the soul, and we strive to extend the aura and blessings of Shabbat out to the rest of the week. To this end, Shabbat is the ladder in time. Ozorov Rebbe z”tl in Be'er Moshe, sees in סלם/ladder an acronym to give us the tools for this transition. As we לויה /escort the מלכה/Shabbat Queen away, we should escort her with similar pomp as we greeted her, with a סעדה/festive meal, preferably on a nicely set table. In this way, we are taking some of the special soul of the Shabbat with us into the weekdays.

If we are to bring the blessings of Shabbat over to the week, we must conclude the mitzvah of Shabbat itself with a mitzvah that acts as a vessel to receive the blessings. This vessel is the melaveh malkah when we are again eating a Shabbat style meal that is still imbued with the sanctity of Shabbat, albeit Shabbat itself has concluded. Each of our Shabbat meals carries blessings over to two days of the coming week. But those blessings are sealed only with the stamp of a fourth meal, the melaveh malkah, or at least with intense spiritual thoughts as we eat the three Shabbat meals themselves.

According to Rav S. R. Hirsch z”tl, the angels ascending and descending the ladder are the same angels sent to carry out God's will for the individual person. In this homiletic interpretation, each person has an ideal image of himself in the heavens. This is our potential. The angels are going up and down the ladder comparing our earthly persona with our heavenly potential, and dealing with us accordingly. Our challenge is to live our lives as a true reflection of our heavenly image.

Rabbi Frand notes only three instances in the Torah [and one in Shmuel I. CKS] where Hashem calls to someone and repeats the name: Avraham Avraham, Yaakov Avinu Yaakov Avinu, and Moshe Moshe. In each of these cases, the physical person was in sync with his heavenly image. Shabbat provides us with the neshamah yeseirah/additional soul, the heavenly image of our perfection. This image is carried within us, and we need to search it out daily, striving to reflect that image.

Rebbetzin Smiles presents us with a useful analogy. Each of us live our lives with millions of little pieces that join together to create the picture of our lives. Like the pieces in the box of a jigsaw puzzle, we also have a "picture" to guide us in creating our perfect selves, albeit, without a spiritual lens and willingness to look, the picture may be blurry.

In Sichot Hitchazkut, Rabbi Zilberberg posits that each day constitutes a mini picture in its own right. Each day we must climb the latter to bridge the distance between the two images. Each day's challenges help us build the character to climb to that higher vision.

While the angels are angels of Elokhim, the God of Justice, it is Hashem, the merciful God Who stands above them to temper their assessment and cheer us on to achieve our potential.

Hashem has formed us in His image. With each of our actions, we cause the angels to ascend or descend, and impact both the upper world and the lower world, writes Rav Chaim of Volozhin z”tl. Our challenge every day is to elevate the physical to the spiritual. In this context, the ladder represents our neshamah/soul. We have this ability wherever we are, even when not in the Beis Medrash. This was the encouraging message Hashem gave to Yaakov Avinu Avinu as he was leaving the Beis Hamedrash and entering a very secular world, writes Rabbi Kram.

This was the same message Hashem gave each of us when we accepted the Torah at Sinai: We are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. Each of us is in this battle for sanctity; each of us must live up to the legacy of our family.

Rabbi Reiss gives us additional encouragement. In this dream, angels came down as well as went up. If angels can sometimes come down and then go up again, certainly, we, as human beings, should not be discouraged when we sometimes fail to live up to the ideal. We too can lift ourselves up and rise again. As the Netivot Shalom tells us, the yetzer horo wants to keep us down, because sadness will more likely lead to our sinning, while joy will more likely lead to mitzvah performance. We are like the angels going up and down, but God is always with us, adds Rav Hirsch z”tl.

In Tallelei Orot, Rabbi Rubin gives us a completely different perspective on these angels. First, Rabbi Rubin suggests that Hakodosh Boruch Hu was not atop the ladder, but actually on Yaakov Avinu himself. Therefore, Hashem Himself had descended from heaven to be on earth alongside Yaakov Avinu. The angels who were constantly in God's presence on high now came down to be with him, while the angels of the lower spheres went to the upper spheres; at this moment, with the Ribbono shel Olam on earth with Yaakov Avinu, earth had more of God's glory than the heavens.

As our forefather before us, we are now in a difficult Diaspora. But the ladder still exists within each of us. Hakodosh Boruch Hu accompanies us, whether we can be studying in His homes of Torah study or in the activities of mundane lives. Each of us is on a battleground, and each of us must search for our personal ladder to connect our feet with our head and soul, feeling Hashem's presence beside us.