Torah Portion of the Week – Vayeitzei – Ascending the Spiritual Ladder – Our Connection to the Creation – A Powerful Parable about Letting it Burn – A Great Story about Rav Shach and Peace in Your Home – Renewing Your Marriage
The Torah Podcast Transcript
079 The Torah Podcast – Ascending the Spiritual Ladder – Our Connection to the Creation
Torah Portion of the Week – Vayeitzei
The Parsha starts out like this, “And Yaakov departed from Beer Sheva and went to Charan. He encountered the place and spent the night there, because the sun had set. He took from the stones of the place, and he put them around his head. And he lay down in that place, and he dreamt and behold. A ladder was set earthward, and its top reached the heaven. Angels of God ascended and descended on it. Hashem was standing over him and He said, ‘I am Hashem, God of Avraham, your father, and God of Yitzhak. The ground upon which you are lying, to you I will give it, and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth westward, eastward, northward, and southward. And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you, and by your offspring. Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go. And I will return you to the soil, for I will not forsake you until I will have done all that I have spoken for you.’”
So, there are many different explanations as to what was going on with this dream that Yaakov had. What was the message that Yaakov and all the Jewish people for all the generations were supposed to get from the symbolism of this ladder? The Malbim asks, “Why did Yaakov envision the angels first going up, and only after coming down? You would think the angels came down first, and then would go up.” He brings down the Pirkei Avos that says that every time a person does a mitzvah he creates and angel. In other words, if you do a mitzvah, you’ll create a spiritual force that’s going to help you. And what happens with that spiritual force? It goes upwards towards heaven. The ascending angels by their very essence, trigger a cascade of blessing. In other words, by us doing the mitzvos, we’re sending angels up, which causes angels to come down. And that’s the message that Hashem gave to Yaakov. The angels that are going up are the ones that he created. And the angels that are coming down are the providence from above.
And the Malbim brings the Midrash that says that the ladder had four rungs on it. What are these four rungs? The four levels of reality – domim, which means inert matter, plant life, animals, and human beings. And through Yaakov’s action, he brought down the energies through all the four worlds. And the Midrash says that the angels were not going up and down on it, which is the ladder itself, it says, “Upon him,” which the Malbim understands that Yaakov himself was the ladder. Through Yaakov’s deeds, divine energy flows up and down on him. And Hashem is promising him that He is going to protect him on every level.
Now, the Rabbeinu Bachye brings another Midrash that says that this was like Sinai, that Yaakov Avinu had a vision of what it was going to be like on Har Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah. And he brings a proof that the same numerical value of ladder, samech, lamed, mem is the same as Sinai. In other words, it was like at the top of the ladder was the giving of the Torah, and at the bottom of the ladder was the Jewish people, which was represented by Yaakov. But he also brings an explanation similar to what we just said, that it has to do with the levels of the universe. Man is at the bottom of the universe, and above man is all the planets, and the solar system. And above the solar system are all the angels, and the heavenly hosts. So, Yaakov had a vision of how God runs the world. He gives over to the heavenly hosts, and the heavenly hosts give over to the planetary system like astrology. And from there, it goes down into the physical world.
And he brings the Rambam who also explains the entire system is called the merkavah, the entourage of God. On this ladder, anyone who wants to is free to ascend or descend, in other words, we can reach the heaven. So, the Rambam explains that the planetary system is composed of four basic raw elements which actually make up the earth. And then you have the moon affecting the waters and the tides/ The sun affects the fire and the heat on this earth. The five other stars affect the earth itself. Those are the fixed stars. And the moving stars affect the wind. And this is the way that God runs our world. He also brings a kabbalistic approach which says that Yaakov viewed himself in the dream as the carrier of the shechina. In other words, God’s presence from the highest place was on Yaakov. God extended His presence into this world through Yaakov. The patriarchs were the true merkavah, chariots of the shechina, of God’s presence in this world. They performed a task on earth which the angels perform in the celestial spheres. Man does on earth what the angels do in heaven. So, man which is represented by Yaakov, has the ability to bring Godliness into this world.
But we see from this that all the heavenly hosts are all created for man. Yaakov saw the entire universe from the very top to the bottom is all from man. That was the ladder that led to him. So, the Ramchal explains that every human being is subjugated to this system of astrology, except – he brings a Chazal that says, “Ain mazal l’Yisroel,” there is no constellation for Yisroel. The power of God’s decrees and influence is stronger than that of the stars. So, even though there’s a true system and that’s the way it works, Yisroel is above the entire system. We know ain mazal l’ Yisroel, we are not limited by astrology. That’s why he says that astrologers can see certain things but they can’t see everything because at the end of the day, God’s in control.
And the Ohr haChayim explains like this. He says – you’ve got to hear this, “The ladder is the mystical aspect of the human soul, something that is not entirely uprooted from the body at the time of his sleep.” In other words, part of the soul remains in the body, and the other part of the soul goes up to the heaven. That’s what was happening with Yaakov, because a sleeping person is not detached from either heaven or earth, but remains in contact with both. During his sleep, the evil urge is not able to act as a barrier between man and God. In other words, when you’re sleeping, you’re able to see divine things which you normally can’t see because of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination that you have while you’re awake. The good deeds which man intends to perform in this world enable his soul to receive the light, divine light. Al pi kabbalah this is called feminine waters, in other words the water from below stimulate the waters from above. When these advocates rise heavenwards, they tend to activate the masculine waters to descend. Just like there’s an interaction in the heavens with the water above, physical water, and those below on earth, without it nature can’t function and produce vegetation. There’s also a parallel process in the spiritual nature – the give and take between heaven and earth. He says that if a person works on himself – I mean we’re not on that level – but he could get prophesy. “Yaakov’s experience during that night made every Jew in the future a potential vehicle for prophesy, and divine revelation,” he says. And he says, “The Rambam also says this in Hilchos Teshuva. He says that in principle, not a single Yisroel is unable to become a vessel for prophesy.” So, we see that this dream was a representation of the relationship between man and God, and how the system works.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says a beautiful chiddush, thought on this. You’ve got to hear this. He said, “Yaakov goes forth in order to establish a Jewish home. And he was the first one to give expression to the idea that God could be seen within the home. The sphere which man blossoms and thrives, the place to which he brings all that he acquires, and in which he acts and builds his life, that sphere is the greatest and nearest place for the revelation of God.” He was Yaakov, he’s sleeping on the ground and there he has the revelation of God. And he brings the Bereishis Rabbah that says, “The ikar shechina betachtonim.” Unbelievable. “The principle place of God’s shechina, of His presence, is on the earth. The angels laugh at those who raise their eyes towards heaven. Imagine they have seek God above.” In other words, God is more on the earth than He is in heaven. And this is what Yaakov saw when he was going out to establish the Jewish people, to create a house, a bayit neeman, a faithful house of 12 tribes. They were going to come from Yaakov. And the message was, the shechina is here. God’s presence is here on earth.
Rav Moshe Feinstein takes it one step further. He brings one of the verses that we read. It said, “Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely Hashem is in this place, and I did not know.’ And Rashi explains there, ‘Had I known, I wouldn’t have slept in such a holy place as this.’ He asks a kasha, question, “What do you mean, how didn’t he know? Hashem is obviously pushing him to sleep there. Hashem made the sun go down early. He made kefitzos haderech that Yaakov got to the spot in a minute. So obviously, he put him in that place to sleep. So, what does it mean, Yaakov said, “I didn’t know?” He wants to explain, “Yaakov didn’t know that even sleeping could be spiritual.” We know for 14 years, Yaakov didn’t sleep in a bed. This was the first time that he lay down to sleep. He was learning in the yeshiva for 14 years, and only slept when he put his head down while he was sitting. And here he lay down to sleep, he didn’t know that even the physical can be spiritual. Even the mundane could be spiritual, not only it is that God’s presence is more in this world than it is anywhere else in the universe. But even mundane things can be spiritual, like eating and drinking, and sleeping. As long as Yaakov was connected with Hashem, even sleeping is spiritual. Rav Moshe Feinstein says, “Yaakov said that the stones should be called beis Elokim.” That’s what the possuk says. It was Yaakov’s wish that they serve as a reminder that not only in a place where a person does Torah and mitzvos is the shechina God’s presence, but even sleeping or eating and doing things with the right intention, that also brings the shechina into the world. So, these are unbelievable ideas. God is here in the physical world. And even our mundane things that we do, sleeping and eating, can be holy. This is the novel idea of the Jewish people, of Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov saw that the shechina, God’s presence is here in this world. And that was the vision that he received.
Rav Hirsch wants to add that Yaakov learned three truths from this vision. The first one was, that everything on earth is summoned and destined to rise and to ascend to a lofty, heavenly set goal. Our whole purpose is that we should do mitzvos to bring things up. “The second truth,” he says, “Is that man’s fate is not decided on earth in the physical world. He sees that God’s messengers ascend the ladder, and look at the ideal image of man, and what he should be. And when they descend, they compare the ideal man to the image of who he actually is. By this standard, they deal with him for good or for bad.” This is an unbelievable chiddush.
We know there’s a Midrash that says that Yaakov had to be protected because the angels got jealous of Yaakov. What happened? We know on the kisei hakavod, the throne of God, in one direction is Yaakov’s image written there. So, what happened? The angels saw the connection. Here is a ladder that goes from God’s throne where Yaakov’s image is in perfection. It goes down to Yaakov, to who Yaakov is now. And from there, a person gets judged. And that’s why Yaakov was in danger and Hashem had to protect him. In other words, every human being has the potential of who he could be. And that’s in the shemayim, in the heavens. On earth, you are who you are now. That’s what creates middos ha din, that’s how a person is judged. So, even when you do your mitzvos and the mitzvos go up to heaven, the effect that they could have on the way down is based on who you could be. Of course, it’s going to help you if you’ve just done a mitzvah. But there’s judgement.
This is what the Midrash says. They ascended and looked at the image above, and then descended and looked at the image below. On above, they see Yaakov’s image engraved on the kisei hakavod. And below they see him sleeping. What’s he doing? Okay, it’s a little bit in contradiction to what Rav Moshe Feinstein learned, which is even sleeping could be a holy thing. But still, there’s another aspect. It’s who he could be potentially, and who you are now. And the third thing we learn is from the end of the possuk it says, “And God stood beside him.” That even though man has not reached his potential, Hashem is going to stick with us. He’s going to protect us. Even though there should be strict justice because we’re not reaching our potential, still God’s with us.
And Rav Wolbe learns another chiddush from this whole story. We know that Yaakov passed Har Moriah and then he came back. When he came back, Hashem shortened the earth. He shortened the trip. He did a miracle. He brings the Rashi who asks, “Wait a second. If Hashem wanted him to sleep there, why didn’t He stop him on the way? Why did he let him pass by?” Rashi answers, “If Yaakov doesn’t feel to pray, are the heavens going to stop him?” In other words, if you don’t want to, forget about it. You’re not going to have siata de shemaya, you’re not going to have help from heaven. On the other hand, we learn just the opposite. If you do, what happened in the end? Yaakov realized his mistake, and then Hashem helped him with kefitzas haderech. He shortened the entire earth, that he should get there before nightfall. So therefore, we learn that if a person really does want to improve, Hashem will help him. If a person doesn’t care, so Hashem will let you go your way. That’s what Rashi says. But if a person really wants, Hashem will do a miracle for him.
Rav Wolbe says like this. “By observing where a person stands spiritually at the end of his life, we can determine what his true desires were.” That’s scary. If someone has the will to grow and accomplish, he will be helped to bring his desires to fruition. And the opposite is also true. Like it says, “The door is open for anyone who wants to defile himself. A person should not think that if everything’s going smoothly for him, it means that Hashem obviously approves the path he chooses. Hashem loves every person to travel the road of his desires. Be derech adam leilech be lich roto, and the way that a man wants to go, Hashem helps him to go.” Hashem even helps thieves. That’s right. Angels help thieves to steal. Why? Because they want to steal, so if they want to steal, they create angels. And when you create angels, the Maharsha says, “You create angels by your desires. So, those angels help you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mitzvah or it’s an avera.” The same principle also works in the negative. You can create negative angels, God-forbid, and they’re going to have their hashba’ah, their influence on you and the way your life is going to go. Or also, you can have somebody who plays in the middle. He doesn’t want to go up too high, and he doesn’t want to go down too low. So, what does Rav Avigdor Miller say about that? He says, “But like ascending a ladder, a Jew must be always dissatisfied to remain in the middle. And he should constantly aspire to reach the top. Who stays in the middle of the ladder?”
There are a lot of deep concepts here. We have to think here about the bigger picture. Here you have all the heavens, the planets, the stars. Hundreds of thousands of light years of universe, what is it there for? It’s there for us. And you’ve got to hear what the Ohr ha Tzaddikim says about this. He says, “And everyone can understand for himself, since the higher world, the sun, the moon and the stars serves the lower, certainly it can’t be for the enjoyment of the body. For what is the body? The body turns to dust. The worms eat it. The sun and the moon and the stars are pure, and clear. How could it be then, that such great things serve such low things? It doesn’t make any sense. Yeah,” but he says, “But the neshama, aha. The soul of a person which is clear and pure, and exalted to the heights of the heavens even above them, because the soul of a person goes above the heavens all the way to the kisai hakavod, all the way close to Hashem, to the highest level.” The neshama of a person. So, it must be that all these planets are coming to serve his neshama, because something higher doesn’t serve something lower. The planets are lower than the neshama. The planets are serving our neshama, our soul.
So, he says like this. “A person should reflect and say, ‘Who am I, that heaven and earth were created for me? It must be that I was created to serve God. It could only be so that I subject myself to the Holy One, Blessed be He, to discern His wonders and exalt and praise him. And if not for the Torah, which man obeys in order to purify and refine his soul, what need would there be for the world? Does it stand to reason that the world was created for the pleasure of the dark, lowly body? The body is insubstantial.” So, we learn from this week’s Parsha to open our minds. We’re small people, on a small planet, on a dot in the universe. That’s on one side. That’s the bottom of the ladder.
And the top of the ladder reaches all the way up to the heavens, and all the heavens and all of its hosts are serving man, here, on this small planet. But not only that, we have the power to influence. Our mitzvos, our striving to purify ourselves, creates spiritual forces which go up to the heavens and affect the heavens. And then the heavens bring down all the blessings, all the light, all the goodness into this world. And we’re judged by our potential. The closer we come to our potential, the more light and energy we’re going to bring into the world. Aval, lo bashamayim hi, this whole process is not in the heavens. It’s on the earth, sleeping and eating with the right intention can bring tremendous spiritual bracha, blessings into the world. And the essence is, like Rav Hirsch says, the Jewish home, in your own home. There was a Beis haMigdash, it’s the place of the Beis haMigdash, the bayit, the bayit neeman. The holy home, Avraham Avinu and Sarah. And Yaakov and the 12 tribes, the Jewish house in this mundane, what appears to be physical, mundane, lowly, simple house. The shechina, God’s presence can be here. So, the point that the angels laughed at people who looked towards the heavens from God when God is right in the house, and a person shouldn’t say, “Who am I?” What do you mean, who are you? You are one of the sons of Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov Avinu is really on the kisei hakavod. Man. The whole purpose of creation was for man. All the heavens. And this is what Yaakov saw in his dream. And it was taught for all the future generations to learn, to take responsibility for our lives, to reach our potential.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid mi Dubno brings the verse that says, “Yaakov left Beer Sheva and went towards Charan.” So, we know that when Yaakov left, Eliphaz caught up with him – the son of Esav. And Esav commanded that he should kill Yaakov but he couldn’t do it, because he grew up in the lap of Yitzhak. Yitzhak was his grandfather. So, Yaakov says to him, “Listen, take all my money. And we know, ani ke meis. A person who has nothing is like a dead person,” like he killed me. The Midrash says at that point, Yaakov began to recite Shir Hamalos, I lift up my eyes to the hills. Why? Because, “When Eliezer went to bring Rivka to my father. He came with 10 camels. I don’t even have a nose ring or a bracelet, I have nothing.” The Maggid mi Dubno wants to explain this with a parable.
One time there was a wealthy man that had an only son. The boy wanted to go into business, so the father gave him a lot of money and he told him to go open a store. So, he went to go open a store, but since he was a spoiled kid and he was a gentle soul, people took advantage of him and the store began to fail. So, when the son saw that things were falling apart he ran to his father for help. So, his father says, “Why are you coming to me? The store’s still open. Just work harder. Come to me when there’s nothing left.” What happened? Sometime later, a fire broke out in the town. Everybody was trying to put out the fire, and somebody comes up to him and says, “Listen, you’d better get over there. Your store is going to get burnt down. Come, try to save it.” The son said, “No, let it burn. This way I’ll be left with nothing and I’ll be able to ask my father for help.” So too, Yaakov. Hashem made sure that everything was taken away from him so that Yaakov would pray to him.
Great Stories – Rav Shach
The verse said, “He is well, and here comes his daughter Rochel, with the sheep.” We know there’s a principle that a wise person if he’s asked something that he doesn’t have the answer to, he says, “I don’t know.” He admits he doesn’t know. So, the Bartenura learnt it from this verse. He says, “The people of Charan when questioned about Lavan in this situation answered, ‘He is well. That’s all we know. If you want any more information, here comes his daughter with the sheep.’ Rav Shach exemplified this quality. Many times, people would ask him and he said, “I don’t know. Come back tomorrow and ask me.” What would he do? That evening or that afternoon, he would go to experts and he would ask. He admitted he didn’t know, and he would try to find out the information. It was known that many people later at night, they’d receive a telephone call and he’s day, “Listen, I have an answer for you now. Come by, I’ll tell you the answer.”
And he didn’t allow the night to go by without finding the answer. So, one time an avreich, a married yeshiva guy, was talking about a shidduch, match for his son. But he came to Rav Shach and he says, “Listen, I heard about this shidduch but there’s no way for me to find out about this girl. I don’t know anybody in that town. I don’t know who to ask, who to trust.” Rav Shach says, “Come by tomorrow, we’ll talk more about it.” So, the next day he came by and Rav Shach said, “No, I checked it out. Everything’s fine.” So, the avreich didn’t understand. Rav Shach says, “Listen, it’s true. You don’t know anybody there, but I know a certain Rav there. I traveled last night to the town, and I found out about the girl.”
Peace in Your Home
Rav Moshe Aaron Stern explains that a problem in marriage could potentially be routine. Routine could kill a marriage. People have to feel the marriage is choshuv, things are new, things are fresh, excitement and energy. He brings a proof that when Aaron ha Cohen was disappointed, because he didn’t have a chance to bring sacrifices at the inauguration of the Mishkan, so Hashem told him, “By your life, yours is greater than theirs, because you will light a light of a pair of candles.” What does the Ohr haChayim say on that? “Why was Aaron’s mitzvah greater? Because he got to do it every day.” He got to light the Menorah every day. They just did it once, during the inauguration. He got a chance to mechadesh, to make things new. If a man feels he’s starting his home anew each day, his behavior will be totally different.
He brings this story, one time there was a wealthy girl who wanted to marry a crippled man. Everybody’s trying to convince her not to marry this guy. They brought this girl to a Rav and the Rav asked her, “Do you want to marry this man because of love, pity or appreciation?” She said, “Pity and appreciation.” The Rav said, “Fine.” Why? Because if it was motivated by love, it’s going to wear off. But pity and appreciation are qualities that renew themselves each day, and they don’t fizzle out. So too, you have to figure out ways to emotionally mechadesh your relationship with your spouse. If the couple accepts upon themselves to do Hashem’s commandments, and accept each day anew, it will protect the sanctity of his home. Like the verse says, “The simcha will still be heard in the hills of Yehudah.” He asks, “What, these voices are going to be there forever?” No, the couple has to be renew them. You have to renew your simcha, renew your happiness. “But it’s a hard task,” he says. “And it’s a spiritual thing. The greater the person, the greater his ability to mechadesh, to make new things, to make life new, revitalize.”
He ends up with a Chazal that says, “Whoever lives without a wife lives without Torah.” What do we learn from that? Every day that one is married, he can merit to receive the Torah anew. Because every day, if you’re not married, it’s like you don’t have Torah. So, every day that you are married is like you have Torah. But this is only if he climbs higher each day, and learns to appreciate anew the spiritual value of married life. But it’s also connected with the world like you said before, that the house is a holy place full of energy and light. And therefore, if we mechadesh, if we renew the vitality of our house, we’ll have peace.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it with your friends. And you know by sharing this, you’re really spreading Torah. So, do the mitzvah and share it with your friends.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff