Finding the path to transcendence

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.


The sky is blue. Everyone learns that at a very young age. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and the clouds are white. When you draw your parents a picture to hang on the refrigerator, you scribble green squiggles on the bottom and blue ones on the top. Then, you take your white colored pencil and make U-shaped lines that wrap in a circle to form a cloud.

But when you get older, you learn that the sky isn’t blue at all. It looks blue because of the way the gas molecules in the air absorb and radiate light. And clouds are not white. They’re accumulations of water molecules that reflect sunlight. In the duration of one science class, your basic knowledge of the world is torn to shreds.


When I was little, I used to love this Torah portion. Vayeitzei tells the story of Jacob’s dream about angels and the ladder that reaches to heaven. I always imagined the ladder to be either gold or like a mahogany wood — I don’t know why. Then you have these angels, which of course I can’t help but picture much different than the angels I see on the costume wall at Party City. So you have this ornate ladder that starts at the ground with “the top reaching the heavens” (Genesis 28:12) and little white angels going up and down. It’s weird and abstract and beautiful and confusing all at the same time.  

What was once a gorgeous dream, though, has recently become an arena for questioning. Angels can fly, so why do they need a ladder? If G-d is everywhere, then why would the ladder go up so far? Is there anything at the top of the ladder?

There’s a slight discomfort in questioning this story that I used to find so enchanting. But it’s important to question and to learn, so let’s see if we can decode this mystery.

Because it’s a very basic Jewish belief that G-d is everywhere, I am going to assume that the ladder does not, in fact lead to G-d. So then why climb to the sky?

I’m taking a course this semester at Washington University called “Thinking About Religion” and we actually just covered a section about meanings of sky as they pertain to religion. Our textbook says the sky symbolizes six different things: transcendence, omniscience, regularity, power, fertility and ascension. I don’t think it’s necessary to decide which of these things our ladder leads to, nor do I think I’m capable of making such a decision.

Aside from fertility, we pursue all six of these things in our daily lives — going to school, cleaning up our desks, running for that board position and striving for that promotion. Each corresponds to a small step of the eventual omniscience, regularity, power and ascension.

Transcendence may be a little bit more of a stretch, but here’s a try: studying, practicing, working, reading, and exercising are all things that people do daily in order to better themselves.  The end goal is to be the best “you” possible. Anything beyond that and you’ve reached transcendence: experiencing something beyond what is physically possible. So it would seem that the ladder connects us, on earth, to our ultimate goals, in the sky.

With all of that in mind, I would like you to think about the month ahead. For students specifically, the future looks bleak. The upcoming weeks will consist of late nights cooped up in the library trying to finish final papers and study for exams. At times it seems unbearable. Hundreds of note cards, stacks of textbooks, months’ worth of notes and the overwhelming feeling that you just can’t do it all.

Even in the fourth grade I used to get panic attacks about work. I would look at a math worksheet and a wave of anxiety would run through my body. The numbers — the Xs, the Ys, the X over the number, the paragraph-long word problem — they’d make my head spin. I kid you not, I would feel like those numbers were moving. My dad would always try to help me. He’d isolate the first problem, but the whole time he spoke I was still in a frozen panic. He’d tell me to do my assignment in little bites. It was something I never understood and I would usually end up yelling at him and crying out of frustration. And that was just fourth grade math.

How do you think I deal with these larger things like transcendence, omniscience, regularity, power and ascension? Not well. I think it’s safe to assume, though, that everyone struggles with long term, over-arching goals. How nice would it be if we were given a straight path with clear steps that led us to our eventual achievement. Maybe, say…a ladder?

Jacob’s dream is a message about all of this. Yes, angels can fly, but they walk up and down the ladder to show us the path and just how simple it is. So if the sky is our goal, the ladder is our path, and the angels are depictions of G-d, then the message is as follows: Have faith in G-d and he will lead you and ensure you succeed in whatever you do.