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Climbing the Ladder

The following Dvar Torah is part of a chapter in Michtav Me'Eliyahu. For the whole piece see MM vol. 1 p. 24 and Strive for Truth vol. 1 p. 93.

GYE Corp. Thursday, 15 December 2011

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, the Torah tells us of the vision of the ladder which Ya'akov Avinu was shown as he fled from Esav.

Rav Dessler ZT"L sees the ladder as the symbol of man's "ascent" in his service of HaShem. This service is like a ladder firmly planted on the ground, with its head reaching up to heaven. Rung by rung, the person must work to combat his Yetzer Hara. He cannot jump any part of the way; all his life he has to progress laboriously from step to step.

Yet this vision was it shown to whom? To no less a tzadik than Ya'akov Avinu, who Chazal say was the bechir shebe'avos. Even this superlative tzadik was shown the vision of the ladder, hinting that for him too, the only way to rise in the service of HaShem was by way of the rungs of the ladder.

A healthy person can go up the rungs of the ladder by himself, though he may well get tired if the ladder is a high one. One who is weak or ill, climbs the ladder if he must, looking for as much help as possible in his weary ascent. A child scrambles up with his arms and legs and may succeed in climbing a few rungs. But what can the cripple do? Both his legs are amputated; he cannot even stand! The flood-waters are surging around him; he must get to the top; it is a matter of life and death. What does he do? He screams for help. There is sure to be some kind person around who will carry him up on his back. He too gets to the top; but not by his own efforts. Someone else has taken him.

And so it is with the ladder of the service of HaShem. The tzadikim ascend by their own efforts, conquering the Yetzer hara at each step. Those who find the going difficult, and beginners (who are like children), try and help themselves by any means that present themselves; with shelo lishmah of all kinds. But there are those who are spiritual cripples and are no longer able to conquer their Yezer Hara at all by their own efforts. They have become habituated to sin to such an extent that their hearts are defiled, and they are unable to ascend even the smallest step by themselves. What can they do? They can cry out to HaShem and He in his mercy will take them up to the top without their having to tread on a rung. If their heart is broken and their remorse for all their wrongdoing is thorough and sincere and they pour out their heart to HaShem, they may suddenly find themselves at the top. The tzadik has to labor for many years to bring holiness into his heart; the baal teshuva has it implanted there directly by HaShem.

It follows that no sinner can say, "How can I ever do teshuva? I am so far from all that is good and holy; I am full of desire for all the wrong things; the avenues of teshuva are blocked for me." All he has to do is to see the situation truly and clearly, realize the terrible mess he has got himself into, be filled with sincere remorse and ask HaShem to help him - and his work will be done for him.

Rav Dessler continues to explain that obviously no one envies the cripple who has to be carried up the ladder by others. And certainly the tzaddik need not envy the baal teshuva. Yet we find that Rav Yehuda Hanosi wept when he learned about life-long reshoim who had succeeded in gaining olam habo in one brief moment, saying "Some gain their world in one hour, while others have to fight for it during seventy long years!" Similarly, Chazal say "the place where baaley teshuva stand [in olam habo] is not accessible even to the greatest tzaddikim. How are we to understand this?

The answer is as follows. The purpose of creation is to reveal the glory of HaShem. This can occur in two ways. It can be brought about by tzaddikim, who reveal G-d's majesty by their actions. By constantly sacrificing their will in order to do the will of their Creator, they reveal the greatness of His spiritual power. But it can also come about by our seeing the way G-d conducts His world.

A tzaddik reveals the glory of HaShem every time he makes the right decision in a situation of temptation, and in every one of the manifold good deeds he does throughout his life. But the sinner has been occupied all his life in obscuring the glory of G-d. His heart has been so obstructed and contaminated by his sins that he finds himself unable to raise himself by his own efforts even to the slightest degree. But his effort, slight and ineffective though it may seem, gives rise to Heavenly aid to an unimaginable extent. He reveals the infinite mercy of HaShem to a degree never achieved by the tzaddik. He reveals the mercy of teshuva. He finds himself taken by the hand and raised to the heights in one great leap.