“He had a Dream; a Stairway was set on the Ground and its Top Reached the Sky”
On Dreams and Reality
The ladder in Jacob’s dream is perceived, starting with rabbinic literature, as a significant symbol that depicts two different worlds, and this is the language of the Midrash in Breishit Rabah (part 68):
Here is the stairway - - This is the ramp “set on the ground” –This is the altar (Exodus 20) “You shall make an earthly altar” And its top reached the sky – these are the sacrifices whose scents ascended to the sky. “And here are God’s angels.” These are the high priests “ascending and descending, etc...They ascend and descend the ramp.”(Amos 9:1) “I saw the Lord standing by the altar.”
Our sages deciphered the symbol of the ladder in the dream, as Sinai, “And he dreamt and here was a stairway”- This is parallel to Sinai, “was set on the ground” “And they encamped at the base of the mountain (Exodus 19) and the mountain was on fire up to the heart of the sky” (Deut. 4). Another interpretation is gematria –sulam=Sinai, both equal 130. (Baal Haturim)
The Midrash actually describes two possibilities for a connection between “the ground” and the “sky”:
The world of the altar, the temple and the sacrifices, and the world of revelation at Sinai.
On the one hand, it can be seen that these two images are signs that connect to the historical possibilities. While in the eyes of the sages who lived after the destruction of the temple, they do not have the chance to experience the connection with the spiritual world through the temple and altar, but also the world of prophetic revelation is also not open to them..
It could be that specifically because both the “altar” and “Sinai” are not concrete terms for our sages, it is necessary to interpret their metaphoric meaning of these images.
The altar is a factor that is a part of the elements that atone for man’s sins. “Atonement altar” is presented by our sages (Bavli Berachot, 5:2) in the context of the trials and tribulations that man is subjected to. The Zohar compares fasting to the altar of atonement. It could be that when man is confronted with hardship and suffering, by choice or by circumstance, he is given a chance for closeness (and maybe here is the linguistic kinship of (קירבהandקורבן). Or maybe here we see the explanation that sees in suffering, relinquishing possessions, pleasures and needs as a way to bring man closer to his God.
Sinai is certainly the place in the wilderness where the revelation of God is established, but the expression also serves as a metaphor for renewal and development of the tradition of revelation.i A scholar who served as abundant and reliable source of information, in an era where there were no available libraries or computerized information resources, is called Sinai by our sages.
In addition, we are reminded of the Midrash in Viyikra Rabah (parasha 32): “And even what an advanced student will say to his teacher, has already been said at Sinai.”
That is to say, enlightenment and newness are included in the tradition and is part of the revelation.
And Rabbi Haim from Vilozhin (a student of the Vilna Gaon, 1749-1821) expresses similar thoughts in his book “Ruach Haim,”, and this is what he says:
“Our sages come to teach us that we should not think we are made from crass raw materials, we are not worthy of being building blocks. On this it is said, “and the stairway was set on the ground” –that is Sinai and its top reaching the sky” –The essence of life and being is that they come from above. There are god-fearing souls that are higher than God’s angels, and that is why the soul is worthy to join with the Torah. The complete person is like a tree planted upwards and its body below—this is the body attached to the upper roots.
Rabi Haim from Velozhin, the undisputed representative of the world of Lithuanian Torah, sees in the study of Torah “Sinai”, which is the ladder that connects between the sky and the earth, where it is possible to ascend and descend, and those who are ascending these stairs are likened to angels and even surpass them in virtues.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), sees in the ethical dimension, the stairway to revelation, and he writes:[i]
“I said this from the start: My work has endorsed the fact of revelation, to attribute it to what is external to man (my emphasis-P.L.), that he emerges himself with the knowledge. He does not become simple content of internalization, but remains “not able to contain,” eternal, but still in a relationship with it. The thought that this relationship, that is first and foremost, paradoxical, can be found in the model, impassivity to the other, responsibility to him, that, exactly in this relationship, man becomes “I”: appointed without an opportunity to opt out, chosen, special, irreplaceable and in this sense, a free agent – freedom meaning answerability to a cause that I am the only one who can respond to it; or I can respond to the place I am called to-[ii] This is the way I have chose to resolve the paradox of revelation: Ethics are the model for the transcendental dimension, and as an ethical message ,(kerygme ethique) the Bible is the revelation.
It seems to me that Levinas, in translating revelation to ethics, has “laid down” the ladder and has transformed it from vertical to horizontal. The “sky” is not above but in relation to the other who I am committed to.
It seems to me that each of us can dream his own spiritual dream of “a stairway … set on the ground and its top reached the sky,” to delineate for himself the defining experiences that “altar” and “Sinai” mean to him, to think about the ascending as an opportunity for internal introspection and commitment, whether personal or social, and on the descending, as an opportunity to transform the real world, the earth and the human environment that he lives in, to a better and more beautiful one, as in the words of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: “The heavens are the heavens of God, and the earth was given to man” – to make the earth into heaven.
iThe Revelation in Jewish Tradition, in Beyond the Sentence,” p. 194, translated by Dr. Elizabeth Goldwein, Shocken, 2007
ii Or maybe here there is a translation to modern philosophical language of traditional ideas of our sages, like sworn before Sinai, One is not a free man until he studies Torah, If I am not for myself, who is for me, and when I am for myself what am I, You are not obligated to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it, etc…