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"The Place Which God Shall Choose"

  • Rav Zeev Weitman

In memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
By Debbi and David Sable
Dedicated in memory of Tsirele bat Moché z”l
whose yahrtzeit is 11 Kislev 
From her son and his family
In loving memory of my parents
Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z"l
- Benzion Lowinger
Dedicated in memory of Szore Rivka (Agnes) Reiter-Kitay z"l, 
whose yahrzeit is on the 6th of Kislev.



The Meaning of the Dream of the Ladder


The Pesikta Zutra (Lekach Tov) by R. Tuvia ben Eliezer records the following concerning the dream of the ladder:


Know that we find the meaning of all dreams except for this dream, whose interpretation is not to be found in the Torah.


Indeed, in every dream that the Torah describes in which the dreamer experiences a certain vision, the Torah explains – either explicitly or through allusion – its interpretation and significance. This is true of Yosef's dreams, the dreams of Pharaoh's royal baker and butler, the dreams of Pharaoh himself, the dream of Gid'on, and the dreams in Sefer Daniel. The same principle applies even to a different dream of Yaakov himself described later in our parasha concerning the "streaked, spotted, and speckled" sheep, a dream which clearly comes as a Divine message to Yaakov that it is God Who intervened so that Yaakov would receive the payment that he deserved for his work, despite Lavan's devious intentions.


Abravanel gathers eight different interpretations of the vision of the ladder offered by commentators who preceded him. The first and best-known of these are:


1.          The angels that accompany a person outside of the Land of Israel are not the same angels that accompany him within the Land. Eretz Yisrael has a special status. (I.e., the "ascending" angels are those of Eretz Yisrael, who now part from Yaakov as he heads out of the land, and the "descending" angels are those that will accompany him from this point onwards.)

2.          Four empires will arise in turn and rule the world and will ultimately fall. (I.e., the ascending and descending angels represent the different empires.)


Abravanel is dissatisfied with all eight of the interpretations that he cites, since none of them seems to draw any connection between the situation in which Yaakov finds himself and the vision of the dream. It is not clear why God would choose to show Yaakov these visions concerning important principles or secrets or future events (depending on which interpretation one follows) specifically now, in the midst of his journey to Charan. Therefore, Abravanel concludes that the vision is simply meant to reassure Yaakov that his father's blessings will indeed be fulfilled for him and his descendants, and he will not be cursed for having deceived his father. Since the blessings include a constant connection with God, a multitude of descendants, and the inheritance of the land, God promises him that all three of these elements will be fulfilled. The ladder with its feet on the ground and its top reaching to the heavens tells him that it is here, on this spot, that the Temple will be built, as an expression of the constant connection between Am Yisrael and God. The prayers of Am Yisrael ascend by way of the ladder, and God's abundant blessings descend by the same route.


Chanan Porat, of blessed memory,[1] maintained that the ladder represented Yaakov himself – or, more broadly, each and every individual. A person's soul reaches the heavens, while at the same time it stands upon the ground, dwelling in a physical body that comes from the dust of the earth. The ascent on the ladder represents the progress of the individual himself, stage by stage, step by step, in drawing close to God to draw from Him the light of life and Divine abundance. However, this ascent is ultimately for the purpose of descent – the angels "ascend and descend" – and the descent is in order to spread the light of sanctity and Divine abundance within this material world and to sanctify it with God's spirit. This is the mission entrusted to Yaakov and to his descendants after him: to ascend ever upward in order to bring down God's bounty into this world, thereby connecting it with heaven. This is the essence and purpose of Am Yisrael – to build a Temple in this material world, so as to illuminate the entire world: "And through you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed."  


Chanan Porat tells how he thought about his interpretation for the dream of the ladder for many years, and then once suggested it to his teacher, Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory. She listened closely and then looked at him and said, "I am an old woman, and I grew up on the interpretations of Rashi and Ramban for the dream. It is difficult for me now to accept a new interpretation that is not to be found among the classical commentaries… But if you find other commentators who offer your interpretation, we can discuss the matter again."


Chanan recounted that it was only after Nechama Leibowitz passed away that he discovered three great authorities who likewise viewed the ladder as a metaphor for man: the Ba'al Ha-Tanya, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, and the Sefat Emet (all of whom Chanan quotes in his book, Me'at Min ha-Or).


Another explanation of the dream of the ladder along similar lines is to be found in Hegyonot Mikra by Yisrael Eldad, who writes that the dream of the ladder is one of the most wondrous and profound dreams ever experienced by any person in the world and is the most important and central vision for Am Yisrael throughout all generations. Eldad views the dream as a synthesis of the life of Avraham, with its connection to heaven, and the life of Yitzchak, with its connection to the field and the land. Yaakov dreams of the connection between heaven and earth, of man who aspires to climb very high while also remaining connected to and rooted in the ground – Eretz Yisrael. The idea here is not to ascend heavenward by severing oneself from earthly, material labor and action, nor to remain rooted deeply in the ground and in the material world without aspiring to ascend to the highest reaches of the spirit. The deepest wisdom of the human experience is to know the secret of the proper combination, of the ladder joining heaven and earth, to be connected to the ground and to the material world while at the same time always aspiring higher and never abandoning this aspiration.


Eldad criticizes the "Torah of exile," which ascends to the highest heavens with its delving into study and its punctilious performance of the mitzvot but is severed from life in this world in general and from Eretz Yisrael in particular. At the same time, he criticizes secular Zionism, with its severance from the spirit and from Torah, turning its back on observance of the mitzvot and viewing the connection with the material world in general, and Eretz Yisrael in particular, as the sum total of Jewish existence.


Seemingly, Abravanel's understanding of the significance of the angels ascending and descending the ladder indeed represents the plain meaning of the text and the interpretation of the dream is explicit in the text itself, just as all the other dreams in Tanakh are explained. Yaakov, upon waking, declares: "How awesome is this place; it can only be God's House, and this is the gateway to heaven." How does Yaakov know that this is the gateway to heaven? On what basis does he conclude that this is God's House? The answer is that this is the meaning of his dream of the ladder.


A ladder that stands upon the ground with its top reaching to the heavens symbolizes the connection between earth and heaven. The angels of God ascending and descending on it indicate that this is the gateway to heaven. It is from here that they ascend to enter heaven, and here too that they descend from heaven down to earth. Yaakov understands that the gateway to heaven, and the place where heaven and earth meet, is the most appropriate spot for God's House to be located, since it is meant to connect and join man and God, heaven and earth. The Temple is the place where God addresses and speaks to man, and it is also the place where man prays to and serves God; it is the place where man connects with God, addresses Him, encounters Him.


For this reason, Yaakov quickly sets up a monument at this spot and calls the place Beit El (literally, "House of God") – meaning, the place appropriate for God's House – and he makes a vow, at the end of which he promises that if God protects him and brings him back safely, "this stone which I have placed as a monument will be a House for God, and of all that You give me, I will surely take a tithe for You." Yaakov promises that the Temple – the House of God – will be built there and that he will serve God through the giving of the tithe.


The edifying and empowering message of Chanan Porat and of Yisrael Eldad expands on and explains the secret of the connection between man and God. What does this connection contribute, and what is the role of the Temple in aiding and expressing this connection? According to Chanan Porat, the deeper meaning is that a person needs to connect with God and to purify his soul; thereafter, he must sanctify the material world with its physical activity, suffusing it with the sanctity that he has received through his ascent on high. In a similar vein, Eldad views the importance of the connection between heaven and earth in the necessary joining of spirit and matter, between a firm and strong connection to the physical Eretz Yisrael and the connection to Torah and to God's spirit. The individual, and the nation as a whole, must be planted in the earth and, at the same time, connected to heaven.


The Site of the Temple


If this is indeed the meaning of the dream, then we must ask why the Tempe was not built in Beit El, the place appointed by God Himself as the site of the Temple, as revealed to Yaakov as the gateway to heaven and the appropriate site for the Temple which would connect man and God. This question is especially troublesome in view of the fact that in Beit El, we do find a temple of calves established by Yeravam – the temple that served the sinners who severed themselves from the "true" Temple in Jerusalem.


Rashi appears to be addressing this question, offering three possible explanations, via homiletical exegesis. One possibility is that the ladder stood at an incline, such that although Yaakov lay and slept in Beit El and the top of the ladder was over him, the center of the ladder was over Jerusalem:


This ladder stood in Be'er Sheva, and the middle of its slant corresponded with the site of the Temple, for Be'er Sheva is south of Yehuda, and Jerusalem is to its north, on the border between Yehuda and Binyamin, while Beit El is in the northern part of Binyamin, on the border between Binyamin and the sons of Yosef. Thus, a ladder with its foot in Be'er Sheva and its head in Beit El will have its center corresponding to Jerusalem.


The second possibility is that the place that in our parasha is referred to as "Beit El" is in fact Jerusalem: "Yaakov called Jerusalem 'Beit El' (the House of God)." Some commentators add that the stone referred to in the parasha is in fact the "even ha-shetiya," the Foundation Stone upon which the Temple stood.


Rashi offers a third possibility:


Mount Moriah was uprooted and came to here [Beit El]. This is an instance of the “displacement of land” (kefitzat ha-aretz) referred to in Massekhet Chullin (91b). The Temple came towards him, to Beit El, and this is the meaning of the verse in our parasha, “he encountered the place (va-yifga ba-makom)."


Another question, no less troubling, is that we know that after reaching the Land, Bnei Yisrael built the Mishkan in Shilo, as we read in Sefer Yehoshua:


And all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael gathered at Shilo and they caused the Tent of Meeting to rest there.


If the proper place for the Temple is Jerusalem, why was the Mishkan in Shilo? And if Shilo was the proper place for the Mishkan, why was it moved later on to Jerusalem?


It seems that the Temple must be adjacent to the house of the king, since there is a very strong connection between the house of the mortal king who reigns over the land and the House of the King of kings – the God of heaven. It is no coincidence that a detailed description of the construction of the king's house in Sefer Melakhim 1 is set down in the midst of the description of the construction of the Temple. From this perspective, Beit El, located in Binyamin, is the appropriate place for the Temple. The first king of Israel is Shaul, from the tribe of Binyamin, and it is he, seemingly, who should build the Temple, close to his home in Binyamin. However, when owing to Shaul's sin the monarchy is transferred to the house of David, from the tribe of Yehuda, such that it is ultimately Shlomo, son of David, who builds the Temple, the proper site for it moves accordingly to the inheritance of the tribe of Yehuda. In order to maintain the historical link with the original site in the inheritance of Binyamin, the site of the Temple is Jerusalem, on the border between Yehuda and Binyamin.


For hundreds of years until the first king reigns over Israel, the Mishkan remains in Shilo, in the center of the inheritance of Efraim, because the leader who brings Bnei Yisrael into the land and builds the Mishkan is Yehoshua bin Nun, of the tribe of Efraim. Had the monarchy not later been taken from the tribe of Binyamin and had it been Shaul or one of his descendants who built the Temple, we may assume that it would have been built on the original site, in Beit El, on the border between Binyamin and Efraim – symbolizing the transfer of the place to the inheritance of Binyamin while maintaining the historical link with the original site, in the inheritance of Efraim.


However, it is still not clear why Beit El, on the border between Efraim and Binyamin, was not chosen in the first place as the site of the Mishkan. This site is both the original site shown to Yaakov in his dream as the proper site for the Temple, and also appropriate in terms of its location on the border of Efraim – the tribe of Yehoshua, who built the Mishkan in Shilo upon the entry of the nation into the land.


Is Shilo Actually Beit El?


Perhaps we may suggest that the construction of the Mishkan in Shilo does indeed fulfill the original requirement of being located in Beit El, and it is possible that these are not two distinct locations as we know them today (with a distance of some 12 km separating them).


Strong support for the idea that Beit El and Shilo are indeed the same place arises from a verse in the story of the "concubine in Giv'a" (Shoftim 19-20):


And Bnei Yisrael arose and went to Beit El [or "the House of God"] and asked counsel of God, and said, “Which of us shall go up first to wage war against the children of Binyamin?” And God said, “Yehuda shall be first." (Shoftim 20:18)


The place where the Mishkan resides and where it is possible to ask counsel of God is Shilo – and yet here Shilo is referred to as “Beit El.” Indeed, both Radak and Metzudat David concur that in this verse, the term "Beit El" refers to Shilo. It is difficult to suggest that the verse could be referring to a place named “Beit El” that is not Shilo, for how and why would the Ark of God have been removed from Shilo and brought to Beit El, while the text states explicitly that "there the Ark of God's Covenant was located in those days" (ibid. 20:27), with no indication of any move?


Casting further doubt on the possibility of any significant distance between Shilo and Beit El is the fact that Chazal identify the location of Shilo not at the center of the inheritance of Efraim, as we know it today, but rather in the inheritance of Binyamin, asserting that all the places where the Divine Presence rested – Shilo, Giv'on, and Jerusalem – were within the boundaries of the inheritance of Binyamin.


The same idea may be suggested (although not necessarily) by the account of the men of Binyamin who are sent to capture young women of Shilo (Shoftim 21). It seems likely that they would have been dispatched from a place close to and visible from the border of Binyamin.


R. Ashtori ha-Farchi, in his work Kaftor va-Ferach, writes that Shilo lies on the border between Binyamin and Efraim. In describing the route he took in journeying through Eretz Yisrael, he writes (chapter 11), "[To] the south of Shilo is Beit El."


Thus, it may be that the biblical Beit El and Shilo are very close to each other, and both lie on the border between Efraim and Binyamin, with Shilo slightly to the north of Beit El, as described in Kaftor va-Ferach and also in Sefer Shoftim:


Behold, there is an annual festival to God in Shilo, which is to the north of Beit El, on the east side of the road that goes up from Beit El to Shekhem, and to the south of Levona. (Shoftim 21:19)


This being so, the establishment of the Mishkan in Shilo represents the fulfillment of the principle that the Mishkan and Temple should be located in Beit El. The transfer of the monarchy from the tribe of Binyamin to the tribe of Yehuda entails that the Sanctuary of Beit El-Shilo, on the border between Binyamin and Efraim, moves to Jerusalem, on the border between Binyamin and Yehuda.


To reconcile these sources with the geography and archaeology known to us today and with the well-supported identifications of Beit El and Shilo, we might suggest that there were several places named Beit El and several places named Shilo (there is also mention of a place named "Te'enat Shilo," which lies about 12 km north of Shilo). Alternatively, along with the city named Beit El there is also a region or province called Beit El, which includes within it the city of Shilo (or vice versa).


Indeed, R. Ashtori ha-Farchi writes:


Know that there were two places called “Beit El.” One is simply Beit El that is close to Ai, and this is the Beit El that lies within the inheritance of Binyamin. But Luz, which Yaakov called Beit El, lies in the inheritance of Efraim, in the southern part of it, in the region dividing between Efraim and Binyamin.


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  He was an outstanding teacher who disliked the title "Rabbi," although he was certainly more than worthy of it.