“Jacob had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring…’” (Genesis 28:12-13)
Our forefather Jacob is on the run. He comes to a certain place and rests there for the night. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. He awakens and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) He then names the place Beth El, the house of God, the gateway to heaven.
Beth El is the most often repeated place in the Bible, second only to Jerusalem. How many synagogues today are also called by this name? Here we learn of how it came to be called this. Beth El gains its name because of Jacob’s experience. First comes Jacob’s experience of God and then follows the name. Yet more often than not we come to synagogue expecting an experience. We enter “Beth El” waiting to be inspired. For us the name precedes rather than follows the experience. Perhaps we should heed the Torah and reverse the order.
We must ask, where can we find the gateway to heaven? When do we sense God’s presence by our side? Perhaps the clue can be discovered in the ladder.
The Rabbis point out that sulam, ladder, and Sinai both share the numerical value of 130. Like Roman numerals every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. The theory of what is called Gematria is that we can gain insights when two words share the same value. Here then is my insight. At Sinai God not only spoke with Moses but the entire people experienced God and there received the Torah.
Most fail to note that Moses had to ascend the mountain in order to meet God. There is hard work in climbing. So too with a ladder. We have to climb a ladder in order to reach the heavens. I imagine as well that this ladder is uneven, the rungs are not equally spread apart. Sometimes the steps are easy to take and feel within reach. Other times they require much effort to grasp. There are times as well when we have to jump and extend our hands in order to find the next rung. And still other times when we require others to lift us to the next step.
The path to reaching heaven and experiencing God is an uneven journey. There is no perfectly apportioned ladder set before us. But we must climb. We must reach.
Years ago archaeologists excavated the steps that ascended to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. I was struck in particular by the fact that the steps were of uneven lengths. There were short steps that required me to take a half step and others that were wide that forced me to extend my legs. It was impossible to run up the steps or even to walk up in an even cadence.
Perhaps the lesson of these steps is the same. Reaching up towards heaven, and our sanctuaries, is an uneven path. The ladder stands before us. There are times when we find ourselves afraid of climbing. The steps appear uneven. The ladder appears ancient. But we can only experience God by beginning the climb.
For each of us there is a gateway to heaven. The ladder we must construct ourselves.