Life on the Ladder
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz
The name Sulam Yaakov evokes Yaakov Avinu’s dream of a ladder placed firmly in the ground while reaching for the heavens. Our yeshiva’s vision began as one of “grounded spirituality”, finding the transcendental dimension in Torah and in Life, while remaining highly functional and grounded in the world. Often, it is different personality types that are drawn to those very different poles, and yet we sought the place where they meet.
Ultimately though you have to ask; what is the nature of the relationship between these two polar aspects of life? It is not enough to claim that one needs to maintain a presence on both plains. We must try to perceive the nature of the ladder, the dynamic that connects the two. Only by understanding the steps of the ladder can we presume to know where we are at any given time.
History provides us with many examples of the tension between these two extremes on the ladder. Kabbalah or Halacha, Chasidim versus Mitnagdim, even the Sefardik tradition in relation to the Ashkenazik could be described in terms of rationalism versus spirituality. Who is higher on the ladder? While the spiritual personality would describe himself as being at the top, with the intellectual path lower down, more mundane, the intellectual and functionally grounded individual would view the emotional and irrational path as being for the less capable masses.
But even in our times of exponential technological advancement, when we look again at the relationship between the heart and the head, we see that the heart is once again demanding attention as a crucial component of the whole person. Today we can discuss multiple intelligences, and all of a sudden when looked at through this lens, it is the pure rationalists who perhaps lack a crucial aspect of intelligence. May Chasidut, which was traditionally looked at as a path for the simple folk, not be so simple after all?
At first glance, a spiritual and experiential path is more accessible. These days, everyone loves a good Carlebach minyan. But of course, true spirituality demands true discipline. All the jumping and singing in the world will not create a profound and lasting level of spiritual accomplishment. It seems we need to begin to distinguish between a lower spirituality and a higher spirituality; rungs on a ladder.
One of the dangers of lower spirituality is that of Dimyonot – Illusions. The emotional barometer is notorious as a poor measure of truth. The fact that I am feeling an emotional high says little about objective accomplishment and lends itself easily to projections of a false reality. This concern for the fickle nature of the heart is one of the reasons many of the students of the Vilna Gaon chose not to promote the mystical side of their master’s teaching. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter points out that one who studies spiritual realms and is not on the highest levels has no way of knowing what is real.
But what happens when fear of projection leads to a purely intellectual path? When we discount the heart and the imagination we run the danger of killing creativity. This fear, which is a valid self-preservation mechanism, itself, becomes a danger. We then become bound to the ground and lose our relevance to those around us who are yearning for the heavens. Indeed, we may lose our heart.
The power of the metaphor of the ladder is that it truly allows one to be connected to both the intellect and the heart at once, and in a state of dynamic movement, not stasis. It is that ability to be in motion that allows me to access the gifts of all worlds while maintaining connection to the anchors that keep me safe. Even when I am in a grounded state, I know I am in process, and while I am flying high, I have direct access to the learning and perspective the intellect provides.
This system of checks and balances, more literally balance, provides one with the energy to ascend. Each time I think I have accomplished a level, the other aspect comes and demands examination, deconstruction, and more growth. It is interesting that these two capacities dwell in the opposite lobes of our brains, so that we speak of left brain and right brain activity. As we alternate feet, ascending and descending the ladder, we strive to deftly alternate between perspectives, each one examining and informing the other, striving to go higher without leaving the ground, to go deeper without becoming narrow.