The Rabbi's Study

Can God Create a Ladder Upon Which God Can Stand?

The question is posed numerous places in Midrash and commentaries: Is the world God’s place or is God the world’s place? Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva engaged in a protracted debate: Could God have been contained on Mount Sinai, and if not could a human (i.e., Moshe) have ascended into the Divine Realm to receive the Torah? Questions such as this have been defined by philosophers and theologians as the “Omnipotence Paradox,” and the question essentially boils down to: Is there a limit to divine omnipotence? Now, the truth is that there are many avenues through which we could question whether or not the Torah presents an omnipotent deity, but that’s not really what we’re going to engage in here. For now, I want to pose a seemingly much more mundane question which arises out of Parashat Vayeitzei and seek to understand some of the implications of the question.

One of the most meaningful and equally frustrating aspects of biblical Hebrew, and one of the sources of an abundance of question and interpretation is due to ambiguous pronouns. Because Hebrew is a gendered language, whereby nouns have a gender designation and there needs to be consistency between all aspects of speech in a sentence, when pronouns are ambiguous it can sometimes be unclear whether a word is referring to a person or an object. Take this passage from the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei:

artwork by Chaim Kohen

Yaakov went out from Be’er Sheva; and he went toward Haran. He arrived at a place and he lodged there because the sun had come, so he took from the stones of the place and set under his head and he laid down at that place. And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder stood toward the ground, its head reaching toward the heavens; and behold, messengers of God ascending and descending upon it/him. And behold Hashem, standing upon/over it/him and God said: I am Hashem, God of Avraham your father, and God of Yitzhak; the land which you lay upon, for you am I giving it/her, and for your seed. (Genesis 28:10-13)

There are three ambiguous pronouns in this passage, and the last one I only highlight to show how the gender of a noun and its pronoun must agree. Not that there would have been a question, but it is clear from the gendered designation that the “it,” in question in the final verse is very clearly referencing the land, a feminine word. The other two ambiguous pronouns cause a bit more difficulty. So is God standing “upon the ladder” or “over Yaakov”? The commentators are in disagreement (as usual), and the theological implications are significant.

If God is standing over Yaakov, it is a statement of the protection which God promised him; however, if God is standing upon the ladder, it is a reminder that the divine messengers are directed by divine order – that they return to the divine and are sent by the divine. However, there is another depth here. The messengers on the ladder are referred to as “messengers of God,” and the name Elohim is employed; while in the next verse it says Hashem was standing, be it over Yaakov or upon the ladder, and the name YHVH is employed. The name Elohim is traditionally ascribed to the attribute of Divine Discernment, while the name YHVH is traditionally understood as a symbol of the attribute of Divine Compassion. In the mystical tradition, Avraham is the archetype of Divine Compassion while Yitzhak is the attribute of Divine Discernment. Yaakov is the balance between the two – whether God is standing over Yaakov or upon the ladder, the dream makes clear that Yaakov’s mission is to bridge Heaven and Earth and balance Divine Discernment and Divine Compassion.

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