The Up-and-Down Ladder
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )
And behold, there was a ladder, planted on the ground, its top reached into the heavens. (Gen. 28:12)
Among prophetic symbols, Yaakov's ladder is probably one of the most memorable. In his dream, he has a vision of an immensely tall ladder "planted on the ground, its top reaching into the heavens." What is the significance of this ladder? The Midrash and the Rishonim provide innumerable answers.
One of the interpretations of the Midrash is particularly curious. Hashem was showing Yaakov two of his descendants. One of these was Moshe, who ascended into Heaven, as symbolized by the top of the ladder, which "reached into the heavens." The other was Korach, who was swallowed up by the earth, as symbolized by the ladder "planted on the ground." What was the point of showing Yaakov these two individuals?
The Baal Haturim points out that the gematria, the numerical value, of the word sulam, ladder, is equal to the numerical of the word mamon, money, and of the word oni, poverty. They all total up to 136.
A ladder, according to the Baal Haturim, is a metaphor both for money and for poverty. A ladder can bring a person up to the greatest heights, and it can also bring him down to the lowest depths. Money has the same ability to either elevate or degrade a person. When Hashem entrusts a person with money, he can use it to promote his own and his family's spiritual growth. He can give charity and do acts of chessed with other people. He can support community institutions. If these are the paths he chooses, the money will raise him up to the highest levels of spiritual achievement. But if he decides to use the money to indulge his drives and appetites, to push as many pleasure buttons as he can, it will bring him down to the lowest levels of debasement.
This concept may explain why Yaakov was shown Moshe and Korach. Our Sages tell us that both of these men were wealthy. Korach was so wealthy, in fact, that he lacked nothing in the world. His wealth corrupted him, and he developed such a hunger for power that he dared challenge Moshe's authority. His money ladder led him to the abyss - literally. The earth opened its mouth, and Korach descended to a depth no man had even experienced before or since. Moshe was also a wealthy man, but he went on to become the father of all prophets, the teacher of all the Jewish people. His money ladder led him only upwards.
Poverty also has this ambivalent power. On the one hand, it is a terrible ordeal. According to the Talmud (Eruvin 41b), a person afflicted by poverty is vulnerable to sinfulness. On the other hand, a person who passes the "test of poverty" is freed from the restrictions of money. His happiness comes from within and is not dependent on the size of his bank account. People who can adjust to a simpler life, who can successfully trim down their needs and lower their expectations, who have only a little but need even less, these people are truly free, rich and fortunate. They can use their acceptance of poverty to focus on Torah, spirituality and personal growth.
I heard a story that took place right here in Baltimore. A woman went shopping for a sheitel, a wig, and she brought along her 12-year-old daughter for company. They spent some time considering different style and shades. Finally, the woman found a sheitel that really appealed to her.
"This is the one I like," she said to the saleslady.
The saleslady fidgeted uncomfortably. She knew that the woman was very far from being wealthy. The sheitel she had chosen was out of her range. "I don't think that sheitel suits you," said the saleslady.
"But it's perfect," said the woman. "I like it. How much is it?"
"Let me show some other styles that are more suited for you."
"What's the point?" the woman persisted. "I like this one. Why do we have to bother looking any further?"
The saleslady cleared her throat. "Well, you see. The sheitel you've chosen is rather expensive. I don't think you can afford it."
The woman smiled. "Look, I can't afford any of them. So let me at least take the one that I like." The saleslady shrugged and walked away.
Just then, the woman's young daughter, who had sat by silently during the entire exchange, spoke up. "Mommy," she said, "why can't we afford any sheitel? Are we poor? I never knew we were poor!"
I suppose we can fault the woman's lack of discretion for having this conversation in front of her daughter, but we have to admire her ability to raise her children in poverty with happiness and contentment and never feeling deprived. One thing we know for sure. The focus in that home, its source of happiness, is not on material things but on riches of the mind, the heart and the soul. That family's poverty is a ladder reaching into the heavens.
The Talmud states (Megillah 16a), "This [Jewish] nation is compared to dust and to the stars. When they are in decline, they descend to the level of dust; but when they rise, they ascend to the stars."
A ladder is, therefore, the perfect metaphor for the Jewish people. No one ever remains standing on a ladder. He either goes up, or he goes down. Chairs, sofas, beds can symbolize a static existence, but a ladder clearly symbolizes change. The Jewish ladder spans the entire spectrum of the people, from Moshe at the very top to Korach at the very bottom. Jewish people are always in a state of change, either progressing or regressing. There is no standing still. They either go down to the dust or up to the stars.