Vayeitzei: Language and Translation

Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt and behold! A ladder [sulam (samech-lamed-mem)] was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of God [malachei elohim] were ascending and descending on it. And behold! HASHEM was standing over him [alav]…

…and, look, a ramp [sulam] was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and look, messengers of God [malachei elohim] were going up and coming down it. And, look, the LORD was poised over him [alav]….

…and YHVH was standing beside him [alav]…
Breishit/Genesis 28:10-12 (Stone chumash,* Alter translation,* Beginning the Journey*)

The ladder alludes to Sinai, since the words Sinai and sulam both have the numerical value of 130…Accordingly, the Torah, given at Sinai and taught by sages such as Moses and Aaron, is the bridge from heaven to earth…. The angels, which are God’s agents in carrying out God’s guidance of earthly affairs, constantly go up to heaven to receive His commandments and then come back to earth to carry them out, as it were. Jacob and the Jewish nation, however, are under the direct guidance of God, Who is atop the ladder. (Ramban; Ibn Ezra) — Stone (1993)

a ramp. The Hebrew term occurs only here. Although its etymology is doubtful, the traditional rendering of “ladder” is unlikely. As has often been observed, the references to both “its top reaching the heavens” and “the gate of the heavens” use phrases associated with the Mesopotamian motif, given the destination of Jacob’s journey. Jacob in general is represented as a border crosser, a man of liminal experiences… the Lord was poised over him. The syntactic reference of “over him” is ambiguous, and the phrase could equally be construed to mean “on it” (i.e., on the ramp). –Alter (2004)

This passage in different ways raises questions of God’s proximity or intimacy. The word sulam, “stairway,” is a hapaxlegomenon, i.e., a term that occurs only once in the entire Tanach. As such, commentators have had to speculate on its meaning. It has been variously interpreted as representing the link between heaven and earth (Ibn Ezra, in his commentary to the Pentateuch), or the “changing of the guard” of Jacob’s escorting angels (Rashi in his commentary to the Pentateuch). In these and other interpretations, the term always carries with it a sense of distance of separateness between the top and the bottom. God’s realm, then, is very separate from Jacob’s and ours. In contrast, the phrase “God is standing alav” is generally translated (as it is here) as “beside him.” However, the word could be taken to mean “upon it,” i.e., at the top of the stairway. The fact that it can be interpreted either way adds to the ambiguity of the scene. Is God beside Jacob or standing at a distance at the top of the stairway? Potentially, God could be either at the top of the stairway, i.e., transcendental, out-of-reach; or at the bottom of the stairway, standing at Jacob’s shoulder. Perhaps God is somehow simultaneously in both places. — comment of Rabbi Tirzah Ben-David, Beginning the Journey (1998)

For chumash and other citations, please see Source Materials.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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