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Shabbat Parashat Vayeitzei 5775

Hemdat HaRambam: Ascending to Heaven and Down to Earth!

R. Yossef Elbaz

In the introduction to “The Guide for the Perplexed” Maimonides states that generally the figures employed by prophets can be divided into two groups. In one group are the parables that are meant to show the reader a single general idea and all the details are simply required to give the simile its proper form and order, or to conceal the idea. In the second group are very deep prophetic figures where almost every word represents a certain idea.

Maimonides doesn’t tell us which prophetic figures in the torah and in the profits belong to which  group, but from the first two examples he gives in his introduction it becomes clear to us that Jacob’s dream with the ladder belongs to the group of prophetic figures where each part has great meaning:  “The word ‘ladder’ refers to one idea ‘set up on the earth’ to another ‘and the top of it reached to heaven’ to a third ‘angels of God’ to a fourth ‘ascending’ to a fifth ‘descending’ to a sixth ‘the Lord stood above it’ to a seventh. Every word in this figure introduces a fresh element into the idea represented by the figure” (The Guide for the Perplexed introduction)

In the introduction to “The Guide for the Perplexed” Maimonides doesn’t explain each and every part of the prophetic figure. But later on in the book he almost off handedly explains what the angels that ascend and descend the ladder represent: “’Angels of God’ who were going up represent the prophets… How suggestive, too, is the expression ‘ascending and descending on it’. The ascent is mentioned before the descent, in as much as the ‘ascending’ and arriving at a certain height of the ladder precedes the ‘descending’ i.e., the application of the knowledge acquired in the ascent for the training and instruction of mankind. This application is termed ‘descent’ (The Guide for the Perplexed ONE,XV). According to Maimonides the ladder represents the connection between God and the world, and the angles who are ascending and descending are nothing but people who transcend to the rank of prophecy who understand the connection between God and the world which is reflected in the ways God supervises and runs the world. A real prophet does not only ascend the ladder but also knows how to descend it, a leader and a mentor, and realizes his understanding of the ways of God in how he leads the community and nation.

In fact, each of us is tasked with observing, as much as we can, the ways God runs the world and trying to act in that manner as much as possible, in order to bring the insights from the Torah into day to day life. 

Everywhere and all the time.


*The Mishne Torah Project – the whole Torah for everyone is an initiative to make the Rambam and his outlook approachable, written in collaboration with Eretz Hemdah and other organizations.


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