Ladder Symbolism

In this week’s Torah Portion, VaYetze, we read about Jacob’s famous dream in which he sees a ladder upon which angels are ascending and descending. The ladder is a particularly powerful symbol, and it can be understood in a variety of ways. From the perspective of educators and parents, there are three key insights I’d like to share about this symbol.

First, a ladder is a solution to a problem — most often, “How am I going to reach that?” or “How am I going to get up there?” Modern education focuses on the importance of critical thinking and the role of tinkering in designing innovative ways to solve problems. The idea behind converting our Computer Lab to a STEAMlab (STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) is to offer teachers and students a unique space in which they can pose problems and practice these crucial skills. This year our students have had to design roller coasters for marbles (focusing on the scientific principles of momentum, acceleration, force, and friction) as well as scale models of the Mishkan, all using recycled materials. Their creations have been impressive, and their learning is occurring on multiple levels simultaneously.

Second, a ladder is a means of connecting a present location with a future location, when those locations are at different heights. We tend to think of moving up as good or positive, and moving down as the opposite. For example, those to move from the Diaspora to Israel are described as Olim (ascending), whereas those moving the other direction are called Yordim (descending). In that case, the idea is that our homeland is more holy than anywhere else, so you are ascending in holiness when you move there. I like a more nuanced approach, however, in which the focus isn’t so much on where you are on the ladder, but rather where you are in relation to others. Are you moving towards them or away? Are you taking steps together or separately? Are you making way for others on the ladder, helping them, or obstructing them?

Finally, a ladder symbolizes a progression from a starting state to a goal state. I am a firm believer in envisioning the goal and then planning the intermediate steps backwards – “what does success look like?” is a question that my colleagues hear all the time. At the same time, however, I also believe that the journey is more important than the destination. I think we learn far more from the steps we take along the path than we do from the end state, and it is not uncommon for the end state we pictured to be far from reality. How to reconcile these two ideas? Maybe reconciling them isn’t so important. When you are climbing the ladder you are experiencing growth and making meaning, and that is more important than almost anything else.

This week, ask your children or loved ones about their own personal ladders, and share your own!

Shabbat Shalom,