The dream

The foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, teaches that Jacob's ladder was a metaphor for the experience of prayer (incidentally, the Hebrew words for "ladder" and "voice" - "sulam" and "kol" - representing the voice of prayer, share an identical numerological value of 136). Prayer constitutes the ladder through which a human being climbs from his or her earth-bound existence into deeper states of consciousness, until touching the heavenliness at the core of the human soul.

The Midrash (quoted in Yalkut Reuvani and Megaleh Amukot 1) on the verse transmits an oral tradition that the ladder in Jacob's dream consisted of four steps, which, according to the mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the "Shelah" (1560-1630), embodied the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah.

While the philosophers spoke of three universes - planet earth, the galactic empire and the realm of pure spirit represented by angels - the Jewish mystics speak of four existential paradigms. They taught that our earthly universe, described as "the world of Action" (Asiya) evolved from three higher and more spiritual forms of existence, known as the world of "Formation" (Yetzira) the world of "Creation" (Beriya) and the world of "intimacy" (Atzilut).

Rabbi Horowitz explains that "a ladder etched on earth" represents the world of Asiya; "Angels of G‑d descending and ascending on it" symbolize the worlds of Yetzira and Beriya, populated by two distinct forms of angels; and "G‑d standing over him" is a metaphor for the fourth and highest universe - the world of Atzilut.

Is there a way of linking the Zohar's interpretation that the ladder represents prayer, and the interpretation of Rabbi Horowitz that the ladder represents different worlds?

The daily climb

The answer is yes. The Morning Prayer, too, is divided into four sections, which according to the great mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), or Arizal, correspond to the same above-mentioned four worlds.

The worshipper climbs the first step of the spiritual ladder, cultivating the microcosmic universe of Asiya….

In the opening chapters of the "portal of prayer" (in Pri Etz Chaim) the Arizal explains that the division of the Morning Prayers into four sections corresponds to an ascending progression through the four worlds, beginning with Asiya and culminating in Atzilut.

During the beginning of the prayers, until a section known as "Baruch Sh'amar", the worshipper climbs the first step of the spiritual ladder, cultivating the microcosmic universe of Asiya within his or her psyche. In the second section of the liturgy, known as "Pesukei d'Zimra," the individual ascends to the second rung in the ladder, encountering the microcosmic world of Yetzira. Subsequently, during the recital of the Shema and its preceding blessings, the worshipper enters into the universe of Beriya, and, then, finally, during the silent Standing Prayer, he or she encounters the cosmic intimacy with the world of Atzilut.

What this means is that each morning we are summoned to climb Jacob's ladder and cultivate our microcosmic four worlds that reside at various strata of our identity. Only after this intense meditation and emotional journey can we face the bustling street with the vision and the fortitude required to illuminate the world around us with goodness and love.

These are abstract, metaphysical concepts. How can we apply the doctrine of the "four worlds" to our personal lives? How do we access them on a daily basis?

The answer is anything but simple. The Kabbalah sees it as the task of a lifetime dedicated to study, meditation and intense personal ethical and spiritual refinement. What follows is a tiny fragment of this vast and splendid edifice of Jewish mystical thought.

The World of Action

The first step toward genuine growth requires you to take control of your inner "world of action" (Asiya), becoming conscious of your day-to-day and hour-to-hour behavioral patterns and conduct, and introducing the critically needed changes you need to make in your schedule.

The changes may be in the area of social behavior (i.e. avoiding gossip, slander and bickering), in your business relationships (i.e. eliminating dishonesty and cheating) or in your personal life (ceasing immoral sexual behavior, confronting addictions, controlling your inclination to gamble, etc.). The initial step to take in climbing "Jacob's ladder" is a commitment to change undesirable habits on a tangible, behavioral level.

This is the primary function of the first section of the Morning Prayer, in which we read about various forms of animal sacrifices offered in the Temple. This symbolizes our own labor of confronting the beast within us and sacrificing its cravings, addictions and lusts to G‑d. Your inner beast may still be very crude and brutish, yet you are empowered to control its behavior and avenues of expression. 

A key phrase in the first section of the prayers is "hodo l'Hashem", which can be translated as: "surrender to G‑d". This is the first stage of our personal work. Your heart may not be aglow with spiritual passion, but before you can achieve significant growth in your life you must first surrender your animal and tame it.

And yet, we are not robotic machines. Our behaviors are the result of emotions, attitudes and perspectives. If you wish to maintain a healthy and ethical lifestyle you can't merely do the right things by rote; you must be inspired inwardly. Thus, the journey must continue into the second layer of consciousness, the world of Yetzira.

The World of Formation

The second step in growth calls on you to explore the inner formations of your psyche. In the world of Yetzira you need to examine your inner attitudes, motives and temperaments that give birth to your daily conduct and behavior. You must muster the strength to reformat your internal emotional structure.

A relationship with G‑d means a relationship with your own inner core….

If in the first stage of action you attempt to change your software, in this second stage you strive to redesign your hard-drive. It is, of course, far more challenging and difficult and could come about only through a rigorous process of introspection, humility, honesty and courage.

This is the primary function of the second section of the morning prayers, known as "Pesukei Dezimra", or "verses of praise", also translated as "verses that weed out", in which we read Psalms describing the relationship between G‑d and nature.

In Kabbalah, the relationship between G‑d and the world is not seen merely a relationship between the Creator and the created, but rather as a link between the surface level of reality and the depth of reality. In Kabbalah, "G‑d" is the term employed to describe the underlying structure of all of existence, including of course human existence. In Kabbalah, a relationship with G‑d means a relationship with your own inner core, with the reality of your reality. Alienation from G‑d means alienation from the depths of the self.

This second section of prayer, a review of heart-stirring chapters of Psalms describing G‑d as the author of nature, is intended help us realign ourselves and our world with their true reality, with their authentic essence, with G‑d. The meditation on these truths helps us weed out our selfish, beastly and egocentric inclinations, cravings and attitudes and transcend our shame, fear and resentment. It helps us rewire our inner emotional structure and reformat our feelings and passions. 

But how about the scars and wounds that have become entrenched in our psyche? How about the abuse and inner turmoil that have seeped into the very stuff of our chemistry? Can we ever heal from them?

For this you must process to the third layer of consciousness, to the world of Beriya.

The World of Creation

In this state of consciousness you do not merely reform yourself (as in the layer of formation), but you are empowered to recreate yourself. Here, in the world of Beriya, you surrender all that you previously claimed as yours to the divine vision of life, allowing for the higher power to recreate your identity all over again, from nothing to something.

Here you are allowed entry into that core space of self that recognizes its perpetual metamorphosis….

In this third section of prayer we discuss the notion that G‑d creates existence every day anew. Here you are allowed entry into that core space of self that recognizes its perpetual metamorphosis from nothingness into something-ness. In this part of the prayer we also declare "Here O Israel, G‑d is one", which means that G‑d is the only one recreating us every day and every moment as aspects of His being, as expressions of His reality.

This is, admittedly, a frightening moment. You must possess the readiness to erase your entire hard drive, surrendering all of it to the invisible "microchip". It may feel like jumping off a cliff. Yet, when you take that jump, you allow yourself to experience rebirth, soaring far and beyond the limitations and parameters of your previously finite and flawed emotional structure.

Yet even after your entry into the third world, you haven't become one with reality. You have surrendered your notion of selfhood for the sake of ultimate reality, but there is still an "I" attempting to experience oneness. I am experiencing you; I am experiencing G‑d and the very awareness of self indicates that I am still alienated from true reality.

Take dancing as an example. How do you know that you are truly immersed in the ecstasy of the dance? The answer: when you are unaware of the fact that you are totally engrossed in the dance. The moment your "I" is begins to observe that your body is moving around uninhibitedly, you are not fully present in the dance. When you become truly one with somebody or something, you don't experience the oneness. You're just one. 

How do you know when your body is healthy? When you don't feel it. When you begin to feel any part of your body - even if you don't feel pain but only a sense of heaviness - it is a sign that something in the body is dysfunctional. The healthier the body is, the less you sense it.

Artists are keenly aware of this truth in their own careers. There is a point in the work of writers, musicians, painters or speakers when they cease to be conscious of their existence as an independent entity, instead becoming conduits for a deeper energy coming through them. It is at this point that the artist performs best, for his self has merged with his work in a seamless whole.

Great communicators, for example, will tell you that their speeches become truly meaningful and transformative at the moment they become unaware that they are speaking. This may sound weird, but it is the truth. When you're truly busy living, the "you" does not occupy any space. When the "I" is totally in touch with life, it does not inform you of its existence, for it is completely unified with its mission.

The World of Intimacy

Thus we are invited, in prayer, into the fourth and deepest world, that of Atzilut. Here you give up everything, even the feeling that you have given up everything. You allow yourself to melt away in the all-pervading reality of the one G‑d. You achieve intimacy with the divine; your entire personality becomes a transparent conduit through which the oneness of G‑d shines forth.

This is the fourth section of prayer, known as the silent Standing Prayer. During this prayer, silence must reign supreme, for there is no "I" present to become excited and inspired. We do not reach out to attempt and experience lofty transcendence and sublime oneness. We simply address G‑d firsthand, as "You", and unite with Him in profound intimacy.

Yet surprisingly this part of the prayer is the most "physical" and concrete of the entire morning service, focusing on each person's material needs. Why?

Because, just as the most profound intimacy between a husband and a wife is experienced via very physical means, so too the most profound intimacy between man and G‑d finds expression in our sanctification of physical existence.

Spiritual enlightenment is a refined form of self-expression; it is a distraction of complete oneness with G‑d. On the other hand, taking your physical self, your material resources and your brute body and connecting them with G‑d, this is the hallmark of intimacy with the divine. Paradoxically, the very brutish and crude nature of physical matter allows us to escape the traps of the self-conscious ego. 

Show me a man who mustered the strength to take control of the first world, and I will show you a self-controlled and fulfilled human being. Show me a man who humbled himself to enter the second universe, and I will show you a courageous and profound soul. Show me a man who dared enter the third universe, and I'll show you a happy man. But show me a man who climbed the fourth step of the ladder, and I'll show you a man who needs not to be happy, for he and happiness have become one.

This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi with footnotes and commentary by his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek, and on a discourse by the latter's grandson, Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch; Published in Derech Mitzvotecha pp. 83-85; Or HaTorah Shemot vol. 4 parashat Mishpatim pp. 1127-1150; Sefer Hamaamarim 5678 pp. 264-265v.

Copyright  2004 Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson