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Parashat Vayetzei - Jacob's Ladder "Sulam" and the Structure of Prayer

Posted on November 12, 2018 at 5:15 PM




Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא - Jacob’s Ladder “Sulam” and the Structure of Prayer (Pineal Gland - Transportation Device)

Bereshit 28:12


12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of YHWH ascending and descending on it.

Come and see, the ladder holds two worlds - the world above and the world below - everything goes through Jacob's “Yaakov” ladder, the foundation of the world.


Prayer “tefilah” is likened to the ladder in the dream of Yaakov. As the Book of Bereshit relates Chapter 28 verse12, in his dream, Yaakov saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. The Hebrew word for “ladder”—sulam—is comprised of three Hebrew letters totaling 130: samach equaling 60; lamed equaling 30; and mem equaling 40. This is the same numerical value as that of the word Sinai: samach equaling 60; yud equaling 10; nun equaling 50; and yud equaling 10. This implies that the peak or ultimate experience of tefilah is the mystical union with YHWH, such as the Israelite people achieved at Mt. Sinai.


If the word sulam is spelled with an additional letter vav (equaling 6), its numerical value is 136, which is the same as kol meaning “voice.” This suggests that the means of travel on the ladder of tefilah is through the vocalization of our prayers. We need to include all levels of our being on this inner journey of tefilah (pineal gland - transportation device), most importantly our humanity, which is distinguished by our ability to speak, an ability not shared by any other creatures. The sages and commentators, have many interpretations for Sulam Yaakov but the simplest is that the sulam has to do with the encounter between the human soul and YHWH, an encounter which later generations have come to know as tefilah.


When Yaakov awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely YHWH is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of YHWH; this is the gate “Portal” of heaven.


The synagogue “temple” is the house of YHWH. Tefilah is the gate “portal” of heaven. And when we pray, the most profound result is that we too are conscious of the feeling: “Surely YHWH is in this place, and I did not know it.”


Our liturgy has a symmetrical three-part structure, 1-2-3, which has the following form: (1) ascent; (2) standing in the Presence; and (3) descent.


Four Stages of Prayer


The Midrash Tanchuma says that there were four steps to Yaakov’s sulam, and the Zohar teaches that these four rungs parallel the four main stages of morning prayer, beginning with earthly reality and slowly moving upward and inward to a higher, deeper level of connection and unity with YHWH. At the outset of tefilah, we begin by standing on the first rung, and through the course of the prayer service, we climb the sulam toward spiritual perfection and elevation.


The four stages of morning prayer with a threefold structure are as follows:


1. Morning Blessings (Birchat Hashchar), which reflect the dawn of our awareness: “Ki karov elecha hadavar mi’od bificha ubilvavcha la’asoso,” (Devarim 30:14) “For the matter of serving YHWH is very close to you, it is in your mouth and heart to fulfill it..” We thank YHWH for instilling Israel with the capacity to discern between night and day;


2. Verses of Praise (Pesukei DeZimrah), a series of psalms which constitute a preparation prayer which reduces negativity and awakens our emotions;


3. Recitation of the Shema (Keriat Shema), has three blessings that surround it, which internalizes our emotions; and


4. The Silent Standing Prayer (Amidah, also known as the Shemonei Esrei), which is a deep encounter with the Divine in a quiet space of union, ultimately reaching a place of oneness. It ends with a series of concluding prayers including Ashrei, itself a key element of Pesukei DeZimrah.


The basis of this threefold structure is found in a statement in the Talmud (Berakhot 32b) that “the early pious men used to wait for an hour before praying, then they would pray for an hour, and then they would wait for a further hour.” The Talmud asks on what basis they did so. It answers by citing the verse Ashrei itself: “Happy are those who sit in Your house.”


The structure of the Amidah has the following three-part pattern: (a) shevach, praise, the first three paragraphs; (b) bakashah, requests, the middle paragraphs, and (c) hodayah, ‘thanks’ or ‘acknowledgements’, the last three paragraphs. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, the middle section is replaced by usually one, on Rosh Hashanah three, paragraphs relating to ‘the holiness of the day’ claiming we do not make requests on days of rest.


Shevach is a preparation. It is our entry to the divine presence. Hodayah is a leave-taking. We thank YHWH for the goodness with which He has favoured us. Bakashah, the central section, is standing in the presence itself. We are like supplicants standing before the King, presenting our requests. The spiritual form of the first and last actions – entry and leave-taking – are dramatized by taking three steps forward, and at the end, three steps back. This is the choreography of ascent and descent.


The kedushah – verses taken from the mystical visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel – is said three times in the morning service (on Shabbat, the third is transferred to the afternoon service, because the morning service is more than usually long. However, its proper place is in the morning service). The first, known as kedushat yotser, occurs in the blessings before the Shema; the third, kedushah de-sidra, is in the concluding section of the prayers, beginning Uva le-Tzion. The middle kedushah is in the reader’s repetition of the Amidah.


The kedushah makes explicit reference to angels. Its key verses are the words Isaiah and Ezekiel heard the angels saying as they surround the Throne of Glory. We speak of the angels at this point: the Serafim, Cherubim, Ofanim and holy Chayot.


There are obvious differences between the first and last, on the one hand, and the second on the other. The first and third do not need a minyan. They can be said privately. They do not need to be said standing. The second requires a minyan and must be said standing.


Maimonides explains the difference. In the first and third, we are describing what the angels do when they praise YHWH. In the second, we are enacting what they do. The first and third are preparation for, and reflection on, an event. The second is the event itself, as we re-live it.


There is a basic shape and depth of tefilah. It consists of ascent-standing in the Presence – descent. The inspiration for this is Yaakov’s vision.


Essentially, tefilah is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. On this ladder of words, thoughts and emotions, we gradually leave earth’s gravitational field. We move from the world around us, perceived by the senses, to an awareness of that which lies beyond the world – the earth’s Creator.


The spiritual ascent or stages of prayer can be paralleled to the worlds of creation as well as the levels of our soul:


1. the world of action (asiyah) and the soul level of physical/functional consciousness (nefesh);


2. the world of formation (yetzirah) and the soul level of emotional consciousness (ruach);


3. the world of creation/context (beriah) and the soul level of intellectual/cognitive ability (neshamah); and


4. the world of unity (atzilut) and the soul level of transcendental consciousness (chayah), which is reflected as our inner most deepest will and desire.


Yet, on Rosh Hashanah, we have additional prayers. The prayer service is much longer than on Shabbat or other holidays, because the verbalization of these prayers is very important.


It is no accident that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the first human being—Adam (Adam ha Rishon—The Common Soul). In describing the creation of Adam ha Rishon, the Torah says: “And He [YHWH] blew into his nostrils nishmat chayim,” a phrase which can be translated as “breath of life” or “a speaking soul.” Our capacity to communicate and structurally verbalize our feelings or thoughts is fundamentally a human ability, and thus expresses our humanness. Speech is our means to communicate and it allows us to build our civilization; additionally, our individual humanness is expressed in our distinctive voice—as unique to each person as a fingerprint.


Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah we go about verbalizing holy words of tefilah; we demonstrate our uniqueness as human beings—by using the highest form of speech we know “tefilah.”


The Rungs of Yaakov’s Ladder “Tefilah”


#4 The Silent/Standing Prayer - Atzilut -World of Unity: Chayah Transcendental Consciousness;

#3 Recitation of the Shema - Beriah World of Creation: Neshamah Intellectual Ability;

#2 Verses of Praise Yetzirah - World of Formation: Ruach Emotional Cosnciousness; and

#1 Morning Blessings Asiyah - World of Action: Nefesh Physical Consciousness.


As we climb the four levels of prayer upward and inward, ascent and descent; we come more in touch with our deeper levels of soul, and they become our internal reality.


Therefore, Sulam Yaakov is a symbol that represents and links different worlds.


In his book Ruah Chaim (“the breath of life," Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (a student of the Vilna Gaon 1749-1821) writes:

“…a ladder stationed on the earth–that is Sinai; and its top reaches the heaven–which represents our soul’s life, which is in the highest sphere. A whole person is like a tree whose roots are above, and whose trunk extends downward, which is the body, and which is fastened to its supernal roots.”


Therefore, Torah learning is likened to a Sinaitic event, since Torah is what connects the heavens and the earth; and Tefilah through its four stages during the liturgy enables one to ascend and descend on the sulam between the two spheres above and below linking everything in the physical dimension to its paralleled spiritual dimension: “As above, so below; as below, so above.” Thus, through the system of tefilah, we ignite supernal energies that flow through channels or conduits attaching our souls to YHWH.


From sleep or 1/60th of death; when our eyes are closed to a silent meditation done before we open our eyes or say a single word “modeh ani” we begin our ascent on Yaakov’s ladder. This inner connection is defined through our (i) “yechidah” literally “singularity;” (ii) “chayah” life source; (iii) neshamah “breath;” (iv) “ruach” wind or spirit; and (v) “nefesh” literally living being “bloodstream” forming a chain link on the rungs of the sulam leading us through the four levels of tefilah energy which ultimately leads us to the Supernal Universe and ultimately to YHWH.






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