Climbing the Ladder

» Posted by on Apr 16, 2017 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Kabbalistic image of the ten sefirot from Portae Lucis Latin translation of Gikatilla’s Shaarei Ora, Augsburg 1516

Come and journey with me.

Let us climb the ladder together.

The limbs, like rungs.

Ascending toward the heavens.

Together, let us find God.

It is not the natural state of a human being to see ourselves in our wholeness. We are masters when it comes to analyzing the various parts of us, chopping ourselves into bits and pieces. But we are a totality. At first glance, we lack the ability to perceive ourselves as such.Spiritual practice combats this handicap. Through worship or mindfulness, we elevate the consciousness, briefly adopting the perspective of the soul. We look from above rather than from within, so that we can see. It is only from this vantage point that we can envision our days and our lives, that we can achieve our purpose.

Our experience as human beings is baffling. We open our eyes to each new day, experiencing the world through our bodies. Our eyes see. Our ears hear. Our hands touch. We are creatures of the physical world, and our senses confine us, largely to that world. And yet, deep in the recesses of our being, we know there is more to existence than the physical.

Seemingly our prison, our body is also the key to our liberation. It is our greatest resource and tool. It is possible to relate to the body as a ladder to the soul, to the world of spirit that is concealed within the world of the physical. By climbing the rungs of the energetic self, each one grounded in a different part of the body, we come to know the soul.

Judaism, like many mystical traditions, is peppered with images of ladders. Peruvian shamans of the Amazon and Himalayan yogis report visions of the sacred ladder. Some suggest a connection to DNA, the very fabric of life, itself arranged as a spiraling ladder. The sacred imagery of the Christian cross and the Asherah trees of old are also ladders of sorts, with their feet planted in the earth and their heads extending toward the heavens. Even the Tree of Life at the center of the Bible’s Garden of Eden, can likewise be viewed as a sacred ladder connecting heaven and earth.

Ladder imagery reaches full expression in the Torah in the story of Jacob. A bold mystical traveler, Jacob’s name is changed to God Wrestler (Yisra-El) when he has a mysterious, intimate encounter with the Divine and lives to tell about it. It is at the start of his journey, years earlier, when he is a young man, that he is graced with his vision of the ladder.

Jacob has run away from home, having stolen the coveted blessing of the firstborn son from his twin brother, Esau. Fearing for his life, Jacob’s mother sends him away. Breathless, Jacob travels all day and finds himself by nightfall at the border of the ancient land of Canaan. There, Jacob takes a rock for a pillow and lays down to sleep for the night.

That night, Jacob dreams of a ladder on which angelic beings are ascending and descending. Although one might expect traffic on a heavenly ladder to flow in the opposite direction, the Torah is clear that the angels Jacob sees go up then down. Tradition explains that he is witnessing the changing of his guardian angels because the angels of the Holy Land do not leave those borders. As Jacob flees, says the tradition, he is escorted by new angels whose place is out in the world.

Upon awaking from his miraculous dream, Jacob exclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it. How awesome is this place!” He takes the stone on which he rested his head, anoints it with oil, and there affirms his relationship with the Divine.

Although there is no explicit link in the Torah, the earliest Jewish mystical literature also imagines a ladder that connects heaven and earth. This ladder, however, is not located in some open field at the borders of the Holy Land, as Jacob experienced it; rather, it is found within each of us. It is the human body, attests Shiur Komah and others, that is the ladder, the link between heaven and earth. The primeval body of the first human, Adam Hakadmon, soon became known as the Tree of Life, closing our loop, linking Genesis, Jacob, and the ascent each of us make as we journey our lives.

It was the sixteenth-century kabbalists of Tzfat who first invited us to explore the subtle body, the Tree of Life made up of the sefirot, as a spiritual practice. They found the context for such a journey embedded in the Jewish calendar, in an instruction whose name shares a root with the name for the Divine attributes (sefirot). During sefirat ha’omer—the counting of the omer, which we began several days ago—we are commanded to count seven weeks, seven sevens. The point of departure for the journey is the Jewish festival of Freedom, Passover; its destination is Sinai, recalled on the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates, among other things, the revelation of our holy book, the Torah. Freedom and revelation, separated by seven sevens. For the kabbalists, such holy commands are also an invitation to climb the ladder and cleave to the Divine.

Although Hesed, unconditional love, is not the first of the ten sefirot, the three that precede it—Keter, Hokhmah, and Binah—are deemed too remote, too esoteric, by the kabbalists to serve as an accessible ladder for us. They are beyond language, beyond conceptualization, and beyond our reach. Our journey, then, begins with Hesed, with unconditional love.

There is no greater mystical posture than love. In love, we melt. In our mundane lives, we are so protective of our separate selves, our personal identity and integrity, but in love, we yearn for union. We know love through our human relationships, but love is love, whether for another or for the Divine.

In this first week of our journey, as Rav James teaches, we consider: What would love do? As we dance the moments of our lives this week, rather than moving from defensiveness, ambition or fear, move instead from love.

Today is Sunday, April 16, 20 Nissan, 5777

Today is the fifth day of the Omer, when we consider the interplay of Hod (splendor) and Hesed (unconditional love).


Rabbi Sara Brandes is Executive Director of the Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation and autor of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, from which this blog post was excerpted. She lives with her family on Kibbutz Hannaton in the North of Israel, and serves as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Alonim in Brandeis, CA during the summers.  She can be reached at sara@orhalev.org.

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