By Rav David Silverberg
Numerous different approaches have been taken to explain the symbolic significance of the vision Yaakov beheld as he slept along his journey from Canaan, the vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder which extended to the heavens. Rav Yekutiel Yehuda Teitelbaum of Siget, in his Yeitev Leiv, suggests that these two groups of angels – those who ascended the ladder, and those who descended the ladder – represent the moments of “ascent” and “descent” that we experience in our lives. We all enjoy periods of “ascent,” when we experience success and contentment, but also endure periods of “descent” and decline, when we experience anguish and hardship. The Yeitev Leiv draws our attention to the fact that there was no difference between the two groups of angels, despite the fact that one was ascending and the other descending. The Torah writes, “Ve-hinei mal’akhei Elokim olim ve-yoredim” – “and behold, there were angels of God ascending and descending” – introducing the vision of the angels with the word “hinei” (“behold”). The Yeitev Leiv cites the comment of the Sifrei (Parashat Korach) that this word signifies joy and elation, as evidenced by God’s prophecy to Moshe at the burning bush about his brother Aharon, “Hinei hu yotzei li-kratekha ve-ra’akha ve-samach be-libo” – “Behold, he is leaving to greet you, and he will see you and rejoice in his heart” (4:14). The word “hinei” is used in reference to the angels in Yaakov’s dream, the Rebbe of Siget explains, to indicate that they were all “joyous,” even those descending the ladder. Although they were leaving their lofty place in the heavens and descending to the earth, they maintained their joy and were no less jubilant than the angels who happily made their way back to the heavens.
The Yeitev Leiv writes that as Yaakov made his way to exile, driven from his homeland by his violent, vengeful brother, and now forced to live and work for his crooked uncle, he was shown this vision of the angels so he could emulate their example. This prophecy teaches of the need to strive to maintain one’s composure and joy even in periods of “descent,” during life’s difficult and challenging periods. The angels faithfully fulfill their obligations without any hesitation, and happily accept whatever mission they are given, even when this entails discomfort or inconvenience, such as descending from the heavens. The message shown to Yaakov is that he, too, must strive to retain his joy and vitality even during the difficult period which lay before him, when he driven from the “heavens,” from the comfort and serenity of his home.
Of course, we are not expected to be angels. We are fragile human beings with fragile emotions, and we naturally and justifiably feel dismayed, aggravated and despondent by the hardships we experience. However, the Rebbe of Siget teaches us that we can, and must, strive to minimize our despondency, and to maintain our joy to whatever extent possible even under harsh circumstances. Our lives truly resemble Yaakov’s ladder, as they feature both “ascent” and “descent,” periods of joy and good fortune, and periods of difficulty and hardship. We are to try at all times to retain our joy and enthusiasm, recognizing that, as Yaakov was shown in his dream, “Ve-hinei Hashem nitzav alav” (“Behold, the Lord was standing over him”) – we are always under the loving care and protection of the Almighty.
Originally posted on VBM