by Rabbi Yehoshua Aron Sofer
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|"Step by step"
"He dreamt ... a ladder was set upon the earth, its top reaching heavenward, and angels were ascending and descending it " (Bereishis 28:12).
What is the meaning of the ladder in Yaakov's vision? Rav Dessler zt"l interprets it that Yaakov was shown the method of spiritual growth: step by step, incrementally, and not becoming a tzaddik in one giant leap. It requires a ladder to success, and each rung must in turn be acquired before ascending to the next rung. If one recognises the need to begin at the ground level and traverse the ladder, then he will one day find himself reaching heavenward. Thus we find Chazal saying (Pesachim 50B) one should always engage in Torah and mitzvos even for personal gain, for only through this will he arrive at being able to serve for Hashem's sake. The implication is clear that one cannot start mitzva observance on the level of serving Hashem purely for His sake, for it's impossible to jump to that level. One must first develop a taste for mitzvos, while enjoying the personal benefits, and only then can he learn to find satisfaction in serving Hashem for His sake.
Along these lines, the Chofetz Chaim explains the symbolism of the angels continually ascending and descending the ladder. A person's state of spiritual growth and decline is in constant flux, it's not static. He shouldn't delude himself into thinking that although he's missed his shiurim or davening with a minyan for a few weeks, he's still the same, and just needs to get back into it. If he hasn't gone up then he's reversed, and he must work to reinstate his previous madreiga (level). Spiritual development can be compared to someone trying to go up a down escalator: If he stops running for a moment, he goes down.
One must also be cognizant that his state of mind does vary, and there will be times when he'll feel down, he won't feel in touch with his spirituality, and he's liable to succumb to sin. Such times too require serving Hashem, he shouldn't just throw it all away, feeling it's useless. Rather, he should gather his strength to at least "stay on the ladder", maintain some small measure of discipline, so that when he does feel charged up and ready to grow he doesn't have to start from the very bottom. Defensive tactics are necessary when he's not prepared to go on the offensive.
In the printed letters of Rav Hutner zt"l (page 217), there's a letter written to a bochur (Yeshiva boy) who felt depressed over constantly fighting with his Yetzer Horah and losing. Rav Hutner zt"l writes that losing a battle to the Yetzer Horah is, in the long run, more productive than constantly winning. It's only when we fall, and find the inner strength to stand up and try again, that we develop our character and truly find our inner selves. He writes that he has more satisfaction from the bochur describing his failures than if the bachur would have written of his success in learning! Because to fail but keep trying brings real maturity and depth. He encourages the bochur to realize that all Gedolei Yisroel fell in their battles with the Yetzer Horah, just as all people succumb. The difference lies in the fact that the Gedolim didn't give up. They picked themselves up and went back into the fray again and again until eventually they succeeded. They lost the battles, but they won the war.
Rav Hutner zt"l brings two sources for this. In Mishlei (24:16) it says, "sheva yipol tzaddik v'kom - the righteous fall seven times, but arise". This doesn't mean that despite falling they arise, but to the contrary: Because they fall they learn to get back up and develop as tzaddikim. Also, in Beraishis it says, "tov me'od - very good", and Chazal comment, "tov zeh Yetzer Tov, me'od zeh Yetzer Horah - good is the Good Inclination, very good is the Evil Inclination". Ultimately, he brings out the very best in a person by forcing him to tap into his inner reservoirs of strength.
Rabbi Yehoshua Aron Sofer, Kollel Beis HaTalmud Yehuda Fishman Institute, Melbourne Australia
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