Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
In my opinion, one of the best sites to visit in Pittsburgh is Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky” exhibit located at Carnegie Mellon University.
The sculpture is a 100-feet-tall structure and portrays several different individuals walking upward at a 75-degree angle toward heaven. To Borofsky, and many others, it symbolizes lofty goals with the sky as the limit. “Walking to the Sky” portrays mankind rising above the Earth to new heights. It also portrays the ambitions of CMU students and alumni to use their education and academic skills to soar to the top. I recommend every resident and visitor to Pittsburgh see the sculpture, which stands near Warner Hall along Forbes Avenue.
Every time I pass by “Walking to the Sky,” I think about this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei. In this portion, Jacob departs Bersheeba toward Haran. He stops at a place on Mt. Moriah and retires for the evening. This locale happens to be the future site of both temples and where the binding of Isaac occurred.
Jacob then fell asleep and dreamt that on this place a ladder was set upon the earth and its top reached heaven. There were angels of the Lord “ascending” and “descending” it.
There are many explanations concerning the significance of the ladder in Jacob’s dream from the biblical commentaries, such as Midrash, Rashi, Abarbanel, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Pirkei D. Rabbi Eliezer.
I have my own understanding of Jacob’s vision. I have always viewed the “ascending” and “descending” of beings on this ladder as a realistic portrayal of life. We all begin our lives and want to reach to the sky no matter what goal we choose for ourselves. In order to climb higher, though — spiritually, professionally and emotionally as depicted in Jacob’s dream — there are times we must fall off the ladder or step down some of its rungs. This happens every time we humans make a mistake.
However, when we slip, falter, err or are imperfect, it is imperative that we continue climbing until we fall again. Eventually, after many trials and tribulations, we will reach heaven itself.
Jacob’s ladder is the lesson of life: to continue the ascent to heaven even if life requires many descents along the way. In order to grow we must make mistakes on the way to the top and begin climbing again.
When I pass by that sculpture on Forbes Avenue, I think about Jacob and the “ascending” and “descending” angels. As I view those human figures on that work of art and their continual ascent, I realize how unrealistic life is depicted in this work of art. No one can reach heaven by only “ascending” the steps of life. The vision of Jacob is more realistic.
In this Torah portion, Jacob was about to enter a period of descent in which he was tricked and exploited by Laban and then by losing both Rachel and Joseph. But Genesis ends on a high note on the high rung of the ladder as the brothers unite and prosper under their leadership and authority of Joseph and in the presence of Jacob.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)