The Better Angels of Our Nature


In Parashat Vayetze, a ladder with angels ascending and descending from it appears in Jacob’s dream.

The significance of the dream has been debated and interpreted from many perspectives – from literal to mystical. Eitan CooperExecutive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes, using examples from a modern Zionist and President Abraham Lincoln, argues that perhaps the image of angels descending from heaven is a charge to create a better society for all.

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Jacob’s Ladder – The Pitfall of Better Angels

Interpretations of Jacob’s ladder abound but they mainly seem to come down to three types:

A literal narrative interpretation and personal allegory – The angels ascending and descending the ladder will guard Jacob on his journey to Haran and back, through the many challenges he will face. They will comfort and inspire him, as do the angels, human and divine, who meet us during our lifetimes.

An Allegory for human history and events – The angels are an allegory for the empires of history. Babylonia, Persia, the Greeks the Romans – A Midrash tells us that Jacob is shown that all will ascend to great heights, then decline. God says, get on the ladder, you won’t fall, and through you the world will be blessed, but Jacob, fearing that he too will fall, misses the opportunity.

Metaphorical and Mystical – The 19th century Hassidic commentary “Sefat Emet” suggests that the ladder is a metaphor for the body. The head is in heaven, the feet are planted here on earth, and the body is a microcosm of the world, in which we are guided by internal angels as we ascend and descend the steps of the ladder, from earth to heaven, and back again. As each of us are created both from the dust of the earth and in the image of God, the key to well-being is finding our place on the right step, balanced between the earthly/bodily and the heavenly/spiritual aspects of us.

The late Hanan Porat, a prominent educator and leader of the Israeli settler movement in the 1970s and 1980s, building on this metaphor in Sefat Emet, commented that the angels urge us on from inside, guiding us up the ladder, ever closer to the heavenly-divine light, in order that we can descend again, bringing that light back down to earth. This light is the stuff of prophecy. To descend the ladder and to bring the light of heaven into the world to create a more ethical and compassionate society is the challenge to every Jew, first inspired by Jacob’s wonderful dream.

We can understand the implications of Porat’s interpretation in the context of his mystical nationalist views. While his politics was not my cup of tea, he offers nonetheless a beautiful and passionate vision of repairing a torn world – yet this image also contains potential, if not guided by responsible leaders, for atavism and destruction.

The metaphor that inner angels offer us a guide to redemption, if only we would listen to them, found similar expression 160 years ago in a completely different context, when President Abraham Lincoln made his inaugural address to a bitterly divided America. With Southern States on the brink of secession, he put his faith in “better angels”:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This was Lincoln’s last major speech before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and in that respect, the image is at once prophetic and haunting when we consider the deep political divisions of our time.