The mystical meaning of Jacob’s ladder

12 Dec

"El sueño de Jacob," by José de Ribera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“El sueño de Jacob,” by José de Ribera [Public domain]

Dr. Eitan Fishbane is a prolific professor (three books published in the past month or so) at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His specialty is the history of mysticism, including medieval Kabbalah.

In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about JTS, which is how I became aware of Dr. Fishbane’s December 8 article in The Huffington Post,From Darkness to Light: Entering Holy Time.” It’s a powerful and lovely commentary on “Divinity as Light . . . an idea that has been developed extensively in the history of religion and in the history of mysticism in particular. Mystics of many different religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism) have described God as a radiant Being, a force that shines and illuminates all of reality.” Thus the fall and winter festivals of light—such as Hannukah, Christmas, and Diwali—have implications of our inner struggle against darkness as much as our primal, physical fear of daylight’s disappearance.

This concept played a pivotal part in my own opening to other dimensions of consciousness many years ago, before such topics had their own huge sections in the  average bookstore—an openness that allowed me eventually to accept the possibility of psi dreaming, and later to experience dreams of seemingly paranormal origin extensively. I was taking an undergraduate, rocks-for-jocks–level undergraduate course on the theory of relativity, and I wrote my final paper on the theory’s epistemological implications—a process that shook up my understanding of reality so drastically that I was physically shaking the whole weekend I worked on it. What I realized was that if two points in time can coexist, as suggested by Einstein’s thought experiment of two clocks showing valid but different times, then all points in time can coexist. It was true only at the speed of light—and according to the mystics, God is Light. Or (And?), some say: Consciousness.

By Paolostefano1412 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

“Candle in the Dark,” by Paolostefano1412

I envisioned a plane stretched out around me, with all the coordinates of space and time arrayed on it. It’s all there—an infinite oneness. To change where I am in space-time (my experience), I should need “only” to redirect my attention, my consciousness, along a new vector through the grid of space-time points—transforming my experience by picking myself up and placing myself in a different one. That ability, however, is likely to take the discipline and focus of a mystic. And a prerequisite might well be a mystic’s enlightenment, that speed-of-light awareness of arrayed oneness that includes all the possibilities be chosen from. Without it, we’re confined in a narrow experience and whatever miseries we think that has.

How does one get from the narrowness to an expansive, liberated sense of possibility in the first place? It took a long time for me to understand that it’s not the power that expanded consciousness might grant (to plop oneself down in a different place and time), but the expansion of consciousness (mind, attitude, understanding, empathy) itself. That’s why the most beautiful and stunning part of Dr. Fishbane’s Huffington Post article, for me, is his reference to Jacob’s dream of a stairway to heaven. Fishbane draws from the Sefat Emet, a 19th-century text by the mystic Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, which

cites a fascinating ancient midrash about Jacob’s dream of the ladder between earth and heaven and the altar to God that he built upon waking, in which Jacob’s yearning to serve God at the site of the future Temple in Jerusalem was so strong at that moment—he being still at a great distance from that location—that Mount Moriah itself . . . was uprooted by divine miracle and brought to Jacob where he was!

The Sefat Emet teaches that through such intense yearning and will we too are able to awaken light even from within the deepest darkness. Like Jacob, we are able to draw Divinity into our lives even when we feel that we stand at an unbridgeable distance from God.

Dr. Fishbane also speaks of the role of mystical Sabbath observance in accessing this inner light, which—although I haven’t read the book—I’m sure you can read much more about in The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time, one of those three Fishbane books that came out this fall.

"Jacob's Ladder" at the Alps mountain pass Timmesjoch (photo by Hans Braxmeier)

“Jacob’s Ladder” at the Alps mountain pass Timmesjoch
(photo by Hans Braxmeier)


2 Responses to “The mystical meaning of Jacob’s ladder”


  1. Jews and Dreams | - April 2, 2013

    […] cultural tradition that spans thousands of years. Every night we are all, in a way, like the exiled Jacob, exhaustedly pulling up a rock to raise his head from the cold ground in a strange land, uncertain […]

  2. Howard Lerner: Myth and Metaphor (through July 7) « - July 1, 2012

    […] previously wrote a post about “The Mystical Meaning of Jacob’s Ladder,” so at the opening for Howard’s current show, I was especially interested in a […]

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