“Yaakov had a dream: a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels of G-d were going up and down on it.” (Bereshit: 28:1)
What is the meaning of this heavenly ladder? The ladder that was standing on the ground showed Yaakov that we must use the physical world as a ladder with which to elevate ourselves by serving G-d. Through our service of G-d we help all of existence to fulfill its ultimate destiny. The angels that were going up and down convey the idea that all of creation depends on us, to the point that even the rise and fall of the holy angels is related to our actions. If we use the physical world for holy purposes, then all of creation, including the angels, is elevated. On the other hand, if we become mired in the morass of physicality and materialism, then all of creation, even the angels, descends along with us.
This reality demonstrates the awesome and frightening power of the human being. The Mishnah in Tractate Avot states, “Know what is above you.” Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin translates this Mishnah differently as follows. “If you want to know what is above (in heaven), it’s up to you.” What we do here on earth has cosmic repercussions.
According to Kabbalah, this world is likened to a ladder that reaches up toward Heaven. G-d’s angels – meaning human beings – who come into this world to fulfill G-d’s Will – some of them are going up while others are going down. No one remains forever at the same level, for spiritual progress that endures requires constant spiritual struggle. That is why sometimes one goes down a step, so that when one comes back up, one experiences greater joy and spiritual growth – “Yeridah L’tzorech Aliyah” – “Descent for the Purpose of Ascent”.
This is the Kabbalistic meaning of the verse, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Bereshit: 2:18). “Alone” means without the Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse, for then he would remain unchanged forever. “I will make a helpmate for him that opposes him” (Bereshit:2:18) – by virtue of his evil impulse, man will at times go down to a lower level, only to rise again.
As the Mishnah in Avot states, “According to the pain is the gain.” It’s the constant struggle with the evil impulse that develops our spiritual strength and character.
Devarim 6:5 states, “Love your G-d with all your heart.” The Torah uses the word, Levavcha, spelled with a double Beit, to signify, “Love G-d with all your hearts.”
The Talmud derives from the uncommon use of the double Beit that we must love G-d with both our impulses, the Yetzer Hatov and the Yetzer Hara. The Torah emphasizes that everything is from G-d, even the Yetzer Hara, the impulse to sin. By subduing our evil impulse we can transform and channel it into an instrument for the service of G-d.