Talmud Tips

For the week ending 9 March 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

Chullin 86-92

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Spiritual Growth

The angels wanted to harm Yaakov (due to jealousy – Rashi), and therefore G-d stood there to protect him.

This is how one beraita on our daf explains the vision of the angels on the ladder that Yaakov saw in a prophetic dream, as he slept when the sun suddenly set while he was at Mount Moriah, the place of the akeida of his father Yitzchak, and the site of the future Beit Hamikdash. G-d promised that He would protect Yaakov and that Yaakov and his descendents would receive the Land of Israel and thrive there.

Regarding the angels the verse states: “And he dreamed, and behold! A ladder was standing on the ground and its top reached to Heaven. And angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it.” (Ber. 28:13)

Rashi, in his commentary on the Chumash, explains the ascent and descent of these angels according to the Midrash Rabbah. The two angels who accompanied Yaakov within the Land of Israel would ascend to Heaven when Yaakov would be at the border to go down from the Land of Israel since they were not permitted to leave the Land. But at that point two different angels would descend from Heaven to accompany him while he was outside of the Land. (The Maharsha notes that the accompanying angels here are the same ones we are familiar with from Friday nights, when two angels accompany us home from the Shabbat prayer service to the prepared Shabbat table.)

This understanding of the verse is one of two explanations that are found in our sugya. We learn on our daf two separate beraitas with two different interpretations of the verse. (See Tosefot and the Maharshal on this point.)

One beraita states that the width of the ladder was 8,000 parsa’ot (one parsa is equal to about four kilometers) since there were two ascending angels and also two other descending angels. Since altogether there were four angels on the ladder when they met, the width needed to accompany four angels of 2,000 parsa’ot each (the angel’s width is taught in the gemara, based on a verse in the Book of Daniel and a teaching from the Oral Law.) So, according to these beraita there the verse is speaking about four angels.

According to a different beraita, however, there were only two angels. The ones that descended were the very same ones that first ascended. “They went up and glimpsed the image of the man in the four holy Chayot and then descended to see the image of Yaakov below. When they realized that it was the image of Yaakov that they had seen Above, the angels became jealous and wanted to harm Yaakov in their envy. (Rashi) This is why the next verse states. “And G-d stood on (over) him” — to protect Yaakov from the angels. According to this second beraita there were only two angels on the ladder.

This discussion of the angels on the ladder reminds me of a story I once heard in Jerusalem. There was a pious storekeeper who decided to retire. He closed the store and studied in the store by himself, from morning until night. When he eventually passed from this world, it was found that he had left many notebooks of his Torah ideas, but with a proviso: they should all be buried with him!

Word of this made the rounds of Jerusalem and a delegation led by a young Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld quickly set off to inspect the writings to decide what to do. Copy them all by hand so as not to lose them? They opened the first notebook and starting reading. “It states in the verse that the angels were ascending and descending the ladder, but we all know angels have wings. Question: So, why the ladder? The answer is: That verse is speaking about baby angels.” The Rabbis closed the notebook and did not question the man’s request to be buried with his notebooks.

Although this story is told to illustrate the importance of learning Torah with a study partner, a group, a Rabbi and a Yeshiva, the question remains: So, why the ladder? One answer I have heard is that the ladder with its rungs is symbolic of how we should view spiritual growth. One rung at a time, incremental growth. Another mitzvah, another prayer, another daf. A person should not be disappointed with not becoming a spiritual giant at supersonic speed. Each mitzvah, each prayer, each deed of loving-kindness elevates the person another rung on the “ladder” of spiritual growth.

And the parable of incremental descent is also one of encouragement and optimism regarding one’s spiritual well-being even when there is a spiritual setback. When one has spiritual ups-and-downs (probably like most people), the “down” should be understood to be only like going down a rung, but not a freefall. In fact, there is a concept in the Torah called “going down for the need of going up,” and any “descent” should be viewed as an opportunity to ascend to a spiritual level even greater than just the next one up!

§ Chullin 91b

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