At the conclusion of Parashat Toledot, last week’s Parashah, Rivkah sends Ya’akov away to live with her brother Lavan (BeReishit 27:43) to prevent the death of either of her sons (27:45). This week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYeitzei, begins with one of the greatest dreams in Tanach. Ya’akov goes to sleep, “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it” (28:12). What does this dream signify?
Ibn Ezra (ad loc. s.v. Sulam) quotes a simple yet profound opinion; according to him, the ladder represents the process of Tefillah – our prayers ascend towards Hashem, and His salvation comes back down to Earth. When Ya’akov wakes up, he proclaims “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the synagogue is our “house of God,” and that prayer is our “gate to Heaven.” The most profound result of prayer is to realize that “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” Rabbi Sacks goes on to suggest that not only is the story of Ya’akov’s dream one of the earliest examples of prayer, but it also influences the structure of our prayer today. The shape of Jewish prayer matches the idea of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend. If we examine our daily prayer carefully, we see that it has three fundamental sections. The first section of davening, Pesukei DeZimra, serves as a preparation for the rest of the service. Next, we have the Shema, its blessing, and the Amidah. During these sections, we are very much in the presence of Hashem. Davening then ends with a series of concluding prayers, including Aleinu. We can clearly see that prayer consists of an ascent, standing in the Shechinah, and then a descent. When we begin prayer, we leave behind our everyday concerns and become aware of the Creator. During the heart of prayer, we stand directly in front of Hashem. This is what Rambam considers the most essential part of davening. As Tefillah ends, we slowly make our way back to our mundane worries. However, if we have succeeded, we should not be the same as before. This third section of prayer brings a part of heaven back down with us. It allows us to realize that Heaven is not somewhere else, even when we are alone and afraid.
This was the lesson that Ya’akov learned on Har HaMoriah. He was running for his life and arrived there scared about what the future would bring. He turned to Hashem; this was the climb up the ladder. Then, Ya’akov Avinu was strengthened by the words of Hashem; this was the descent from the ladder that reached the heaven. When Tefillah has an impact on us, then we can come to the same realization that Ya’akov had – “Achein Yeish Hashem BaMakom HaZeh,” “Indeed, Hashem is in this place” (28:16).