On Dreams And Reality
The rabbinic understanding of Jacob's ladder as symbolic of the altar or Sinai provides us with imagery and metaphors for enhancing our spiritual lives.
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And he dreamed and behold a ladder stationed on the earth and its top reaches the sky, and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
behold God stands above it … (Genesis 28:12-13)
Interpreting Jacob's Dream
The ladder that Jacob climbed in his dream was viewed by the Jewish sages as a symbol that represents and links different worlds. A midrash in the medieval collection on the Book of Genesis, Bereishit Rabbah, interpreted verse 12 as follows:
"And behold a ladder--this is the incline [leading to the Temple altar]. Stationed on the earth--this is the altar, as it says (Exodus 20:21), ‘Make for me an altar of earth.’ And its top reaches the sky--these are the offerings whose fragrance rises to heaven. And behold the angels of God--these are the high priests. Ascending and descending on it--that is, they ascend and descend on the incline. And behold God stands above it, as it says (Amos 9:1), "I saw God standing on the altar."
The Rabbis also understood the symbol of the ladder in Jacob's dream as Sinai: "And he dreamed and behold a ladder--this is Sinai. Stationed on earth--as it says (Exodus 19:17), 'They stood at the base of the mountain.' And its top reaching the sky--as it says (Deuteronomy 4:11), 'And the mountain was alight with fire unto the heart of the sky.'
"An alternative word on this matter: And behold a ladder--this is Sinai, for the numerology of the letters of ladder are equal to those of Sinai (namely, [in Hebrew, where each letter equals a number], they both add up to 130)."
The Meaning Behind the Altar
This midrash describes two possibilities for linking the earth to the heaven: the world of the altar, the Temple, and sacrifice on the one hand, and the world of revelation at Sinai on the other. We can see these two sets of images as symbols for, respectively, historical and mythological reality.
But the Rabbis of the talmudic and post-talmudic periods, having lived after both the revelation at Sinai and the destruction of the Temple, lacked an experiential and spiritual connection to either. Because neither Sinai nor the altar was a concrete phenomenon for the Rabbis, they developed these "memories" into metaphors.