“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it.”
— Genesis 28:12-13
This little passage has been interpreted in a multitude of ways over the centuries. In each generation we have been fascinated by how the dream applies to us. For example, we have long wondered why the angels first ascend and then descend, when we would imagine them to originate in heaven and therefore first descend to earth before returning to heaven.
It is an important detail that a ladder separates Jacob from God. On this ladder, whose base stands on the earth, but whose top rungs reach to the very heavens, angels of God are ascending and descending. The word translated here as “ladder” (sulam) may also be understood as “ramp” or “stairway.”
“The Torah: a Modern Commentary” indicates that the sulam of Jacob’s dream reflects an ancient belief in a cosmic bond between heaven and earth. In order to achieve a link between the two sides, the partners must ascend or descend a ladder. Our own contemporary experience of God often resembles a cosmic dance.
Rabbi David Wolpe has suggested that Jacob’s ladder begins in the heart and reaches toward heaven. Jacob, and we who are named for him (technically for Israel, Jacob’s other name) are constantly constructing and climbing ladders, reaching for justice, reaching for righteousness, reaching for our best selves, reaching for God. The path is not always smooth, but it is worthwhile. Jacob is, in fact, the best teacher of this truth: he experiences painful challenges within his personal life, as a son and brother and later as a husband and father, and his “professional life” as well. Sometimes Jacob’s actions bring him closer to God, and sometimes they distance him from God, but he keeps climbing, ascending and descending, throughout his life.
And so it is with us. This week, as we read and ponder the role of the ladder in our own lives, we are inspired by a video clip that has “gone viral” on the Internet. This video, of Alice Herz-Sommer, introduces the world to a woman who, throughout her 107 years on Earth, has climbed a ladder whose base rests in the heart and reaches toward heaven.
Alice Herz-Sommer is the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, which is extraordinary, but that isn’t the most extraordinary thing about her. Before the war, Alice was a concert pianist. She was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, when she was 39. There, she performed over 100 concerts — all of Chopin’s etudes — from memory. Another survivor, one who heard Alice’s concerts in the camp, recounts how she felt upon hearing Alice play. She said the music removed the audience from the camp; it transfixed them such that it was only when she was done playing that they would “return to Earth.”
The power of Alice’s music was enough to bridge heaven and earth, even in Theresienstadt. But what is perhaps even more remarkable is Alice’s love of people. She says things like, “I never hate and I will never hate. Hatred,” she continues, “brings only hatred.” Alice’s sweet nature — she laughs all the time — is enough to bridge heaven and earth.
This week, we commemorate Kristallnacht and the beginning of the Nazi horrors in Europe that led to the Holocaust. I encourage you to watch the video clip of Alice Herz-Sommer and to allow her life, and that of our patriarch Jacob, to inspire us to keep ascending the ladder that begins in our hearts and reaches toward heaven. When we do that, our lives, and those of everyone we encounter, will be a blessing.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)