Who's the Ladder?

laddersA human is a ladder planted on earth whose head reaches heaven and the angels of God ascend and descend in him. — Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, aka the Besht (1700-1760), Kabbalist

Our Biblical ancestor Jacob dreams of a ladder, planted on earth and reaching to heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending. As the Besht sees it, the dream shows Jacob a first glimpse of his spiritual life.

Reality, says the Besht, is twofold: manifest physical reality (yesh) and hidden divine reality (ayin). Everyday perception notices only physical reality; spiritual perception sees only the divine. Human spiritual development is an effort to unite these two realities.

We elevate (ha’alah) the significance of the ordinary through study and intentional action. We draw (hamshachah) elusive divine energy into our psyches through prayer and meditation. We raise up; we draw down. We range along the rungs (madregot) of a metaphorical ladder. Sometimes we climb to spiritual perception; sometimes we fall to everyday perception.

What might this look like in daily practice?

I answer that question in an 18 minute video. The teaching begins with Jacob’s dream; fast-forwards through 3,000 years of intellectual history; and concludes with a technique for elevating the ordinary so that it can be used to drawn down the divine. Watch.

Image: Ladders by Dan, FreeDigitalPhoto.net. Video: Guest sermon at Canadian Memorial United Church, November 2014. Background information on the Besht: Rachel Elior

  1. Fabulous sermon, Laura, dynamite ending. The ladder: just want to make sure you are familiar with John 1:43-51, the account of Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael, later to be an apostle under the name of Bartholomew–“heaven wide open, and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (51). The Christian mystical tradition has a double interpretation: Jesus himself is the ladder between heaven and earth, and, as you said about Jacob, each of us is a ladder as well.

  2. Dear Reb Laura,

    I am responding to your article this way rather than leaving a comment so that I can attach an image of the tapestry I just finished for an international triennial of textiles in Poland. I have used the ladder image in just the way you speak about. The working title of the tapestry is ‘tzimtzum – tikun – transcendence”

    Barbara Heller

  3. Reb Laura, this is a wonderful talk. I quoted you today and I am planning to send it out to our meditation/spirituality group at my synagogue.

  4. This was very interesting to read, especially coming from a muslim background

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