April 18, 2024
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The avodas ha-tefillah of Rabbi Yisrael — the holy Baal Shem Tov — was known to be a lofty prayer service, filled with intensity and often lasting for hours on end. Long after concluding their own davening, his disciples — known as the Chevra Kadisha, the “Holy Fellowship” of Medzhibozh — would return to the beis medrash and join their rebbe. As they arrived, they would form a circle around the tzaddik, witnessing and taking part in his avodah. One day, as the rebbe’s davening was particularly drawn out, the chevra began to run out of steam. Assuming the Baal Shem Tov would be deep in dveykus for many more hours, they began to slip out — one by one — for a coffee, a bite to eat or a few minutes of rest.

Much to their surprise and dismay, when they returned, they found that the Baal Shem Tov had already completed his davening. Embarrassed, they asked their rebbe why he’d concluded his avodah so much earlier than usual. The Baal Shem Tov sighed and shared a mashal:

“A group of travelers was passing through the forest, and their leader, a man with unusually keen vision, spotted an exquisite bird at the top of a tall tree. As the others couldn’t see the bird, the leader tried to reach upward and catch it, so they could enjoy its beauty as well.

Without a ladder, though, the beautiful bird remained out of reach, until the men began to climb onto one another’s shoulders. Constructing a human ladder, they hoisted their leader upward until he was able to reach the bird and bring it down for all to see … ”

The Baal Shem Tov explained to the cha­sidim, “When I meditate in Amidah, many hidden things are revealed to me, but my consuming desire is to ascend to the level in the world above which the Zohar calls ‘the palace of the bird’s nest’ — the abode of the Mashiach. But I cannot reach that height un­less I first stand you — my disciples — on each others’ shoulders.”

“Imagine,” continued the Baal Shem Tov, “what would happen if the person at the bottom supporting the ladder suddenly decided to leave. Everyone would fall, including the person with the keen vision, and he could be injured by falling from such a great height.”

“But when you remain with me in the beis medrash — even without any knowledge of what is going on — I am able to place you on each other’s shoulders, so to speak, reach the chamber of Mashiach, and bring some of that beauty down for us to share and appreciate together. I cannot do it without you.”

~

As a refugee running from a brother who sought to kill him, Yaakov Avinu’s future is uncertain. With nowhere to go and no roof over his head, Yaakov experiences a Divine encounter on the Temple Mount: “And Yaakov encountered the place — and he slept there.”

וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי־בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ

“And Yaakov encountered the place — and he slept there, for the sun had set …”

 וַֽיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה ,וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹקִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ

“And he had a dream: a sulam, a ladder, was set on the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and messengers of God were going up and down on it.” (28:12)

“How awesome is this place!” cries Yaakov Avinu, as he awakens from this encounter with the Ribbono Shel Olam at the location of the future Beis Hamikdash, the headquarters of tefillah. He is shocked to realize he had slept at the שער השמים — “gate of the Heavens,” where all prayers ascend to the world above.

During the previous evening, after the sun had set, Yaakov had davened. Based on this, our Sages (Berachos, 26b) instituted Arvit, the evening prayer:

וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם: ואין פגיעה אלא תפלה

“‘And Yaakov encountered the place.’ The word ‘encounter’ always means prayer,”

as it is said, when Hashem spoke to Yirmiyahu Hanavi.

ואתה אל תתפלל בעד העם הזה ואל תשא בעדם רנה ותפלה ואל תפגע בי

“And you, do not pray on behalf of this nation and do not raise on their behalf song and prayer, and do not tifga, ‘encounter’ Me, for I do not hear you,’” (Yirmiyahu, 7:16).

Jewish mystical tradition frames our formal “encounter” with God in tefillah as one of ascent, climbing through spiritual dimensions to the Supernal World. Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher — the Ba’al haTurim — writes that the word “sulam,” (ladder) shares the same gematria, numerical value as קול, “voice” — “for the voice of the tefillah of the tzaddikim is a ladder upon which the angels ascend.”

~

Dr. Avraham (Alan) Rosen is a prolific author and editor of Holocaust literature, testimony and history. He was a talmid muvhak of Professor Elie Wiesel, zt”l, for almost 40 years. As a doctoral student and project director for the Wiesel Living Archive at the 92Y, he maintained a monthly chavrusa shaft, sharing and learning Torah with Professor Weisel on Rosh Chodesh. During one such shmooze on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Dr. Rosen pointed out that the upcoming sedra related Yaakov’s dream vision of a ladder, “mutzav artzah v’rosho magiah hashamayma,  — stretching from the ground toward Heaven.” He commented: “Is there any greater episode, or more splendid image, than that of this ladder?”

Quoting the pesukim by heart, Professor Wiesel shared his interpretation: “ … We help each other rise by being one another’s ladder.”

Chevra, together, we are creating a ladder for each other — supporting and enabling one another’s avodah and ascent. May we remain present and committed, holding each other up and providing strength and encouragement in our efforts toward higher encounters with the Ribbono Shel Olam.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY,  founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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