From "Jacob's Ladder" by William Blake, 1805
From "Jacob's Ladder" by William Blake, 1805

Be present, persevere — and climb the long ladder


Genesis 28:10–32:3

Hosea 12:13–14:10 (Ashkenazi)

Hosea 11:17-12:12 (Sephardic)

Being present in the moment — nothing could be more real or challenging. Amid all the passions swirling inside my heart, and the stories I tell myself inside my head, what would life be like if lived truly present from moment to moment?

When I contemplate my life’s journey, I turn to a few sources of inspiration.

First, there’s Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). I find profound clarity in his teachings that desires for things other than perseverance show me that such desires are part of my own confusion. How present I am to my deployment is based on how connected I am to my sufficient reason as the compass to clarity, according to Spinoza.

Being truly present, with clarity, to this moment, in this place, is totally unexpected but emerges in the practice of meditation. In his book “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” Jewish meditation pioneer Rabbi Alan Lew (1944-2009) wove the timeless truth of the Hebrew calendar into his own poetic texture of time for spiritual practice.

Now we get to the moment of Jacob’s journey. What is the role of the sulam (ladder) in Jacob’s dream vision? What can we learn from Jacob falling asleep in the moment he receives his dream revelation?

Jacob’s episode recalls incubation — common in Near and Far Eastern religion-cultures — a spiritual technique that instructs the seeker to sleep in sacred precincts of a temple so the deity will reveal its will.

But ascending and descending the sulam points to meanings embedded in its root S-L-L, which means “to cast up a mound” or points to “steps.” This is how we arrive at the sulam meaning ladder or stairway ramp.

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the divinities and the souls of the dead ascending from the netherworld to human and divine abodes, but the relationship of Jacob’s journey with this sulam is entirely different. “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder [sulam] set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

A Hasidic reading says the sulam/“ladder” symbolizes what it means to be a human being: constantly in a state of ascent and descent. Despite our embeddedness within the ground of being, our heads remain inclined heavenward when we are present to our materiality.

Here, I am drawn to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and the lyric “May you build a ladder to the stars, and climb on every rung.” It is Dylan prayerfully singing for the ascent of his children to reach to the heavens to realize their dreams.

However, Dylan’s cynical side comes out in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” He invokes “a white ladder all covered with water” and concludes, “Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” When the ship is sinking, an escape ladder covered with water offers little possibility for escape or redemption.

Is Dylan’s songbook then in agreement with the Hasidic reading of the “ladder” as being descriptive of the existential condition of being a human being?

Alas, in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan has the lyric, “And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” If there is no top or bottom to the “ladder of law,” then the stakes feel higher. Either there is no end to the work of justice to be sought within the letter of the law or, as Dylan sings in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

In 2006, Dylan sings “All my loyal and much-loved companions, they approve of me and share my code. I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned. Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road” in “Ain’t Talkin’.”

While Dylan has not created his own religion, per se, there is a shared code among close friends of how to best navigate the chaos of life.

The iconoclastic ethos of the Judaism that formed this bard teaches us to continue smashing altars so that: 1) perseverance can overcome passionate desires; 2) the ladder of life, amid its ascent and descent, can enable a deeper presence to what is; and 3) that through such presence we might be more awakened to catch glimmers of the steps toward the world that is coming.