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The Ladder of Life

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

My Bat Mitzvah took place during this week’s parsha, Parsha Vayeitzei. I didn’t actually remember that; only once I returned to my Jewish roots did I rediscover the speech that I gave in shul that year. I spoke about the dream Jacob had, of a ladder planted in the ground and reaching into the heavens.

Now that I have reclaimed my Jewish identity and made it my own (a choice every Jew must make, in one form or another, even if born religious), the ladder has become a significant, eternal symbol for me. Really, though, it is universally applicable and should be equally dear to all of us. After all, it is the symbol of “the game of life.”

Here are the rules: Each one of us has a ladder. With every good choice we make, we ascend upward. Each rung brings us closer to achieving our potential and connects us to G-d. This is the goal. With every bad choice, we descend back toward earth.

What is a good choice? One that aligns with our higher selves, with what our souls want. Unfortunately, what our souls want is often at odds with what our bodies or egos want. (Therein lies our free will point, a concept we have discussed before.) On a deeper level, many do not even know what their souls want.

It’s hard to keep making the right decision and climbing up the ladder. But the Torah teaches that contrary to popular belief, the opposite of pain is not pleasure, but no pain. A life of comfort does not lead to a life of ultimate pleasure. Rather, a life of constant growth does. And such a life is made up of the small, everyday correct choices that keep us ascending up our ladders.

Inevitably, though, we all make bad decisions and fall down our ladders. This point is crucial. For instance, last night I spent an hour watching a movie I’ve seen a million times. I could have done so many more valuable things with that hour and I felt bad about it afterward. Yet, rather than let the decision bring me down, I decided to move onward and upward. I woke up this morning determined to make better use of my time. It is a famous Torah teaching in Proverbs that a tzaddik, a righteous individual, falls seven times and gets up. How many of us give up on something after failing at it once, twice, or three times? Seven?! Everybody falls, but only the greatest people know how to get up.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a great Chassidic Rabbi from the 18th century, said that there is no greater mitzvah than to be happy and no greater sin that to be hopeless. Why? Because when we are hopeless we aren’t motivated to do good, to move up our ladders. But when we are happy, we are motivated to jump from mitzvah to mitzvah, from rung to rung, closer to others and G-d and our true selves.

It is a fundamental Jewish principle that if we’re not going up, we’re going down. Which direction are you going in?

Book Suggestions:

  1. Rabbi Eli Deutsch: Human by Choice (Rabbi Deutsch, in his down-to-earth, humorous style uses Kabbalistic concepts to shed light on our modern society and how we can best achieve our potentials)

  2. Rabbi Trugman: The Mystical Meaning of Dreams (Rabbi Trugman discusses the idea of dreams from a Jewish perspective)

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