Parashat Vayeseh- Poverty and Wealth
We read in Parashat Vayeseh of Yaakob’s famous dream as he fled from Eretz Yisrael to escape from his brother. In this dream Yaakob beheld the vision of a ladder that extended from the ground to the heavens, and he saw angels walking up and down the ladder.
The Midrash makes a perplexing comment regarding this dream, telling us that at the top of the ladder, Yaakob saw an image of Moshe Rabbenu. At the bottom of the ladder, the Midrash relates, Yaakob saw the image of Korah, Moshe’s cousin who led a revolt against his authority, as we read in the Book of Bamidbar (chapter 16).
What is the meaning of this vision? What would the sight of Moshe and Korah at the ends of the ladder symbolize?
Moshe and Korah were the two wealthiest men among Beneh Yisrael when they traveled in the wilderness. The Sages teach that God allowed Moshe to keep the sapphire dust that was produced when the stone tablets were carved, and he became very wealthy from this material. And Korah, the Midrash says, left Egypt with hundreds of camels laden with riches. Moshe and Korah stood at either end of the ladder in Yaakob’s dream to demonstrate that wealth can propel a person to the greatest heights, or plunge him to the lowest depths. Moshe and Korah were both wealthy, but Moshe reached the greatest heights achieved by any human being – spending forty days in the heavens together with the Almighty – whereas Korah and his cohorts were condemned to the lowest depths, when the earth devoured them after their brazen revolt.
Indeed, this message is embedded even within the word “Sulam” (“ladder”) itself. The Ba’al Ha’turim (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, 1270-1340) noted that the numerical value of this word, 136, is the same numerical value as the word “Mammon” – money. Money is like a ladder – it can raise a person to great heights or throw him to the lowest depths. A wealthy person can use his money to educate his children at the highest standard, to help the poor, to support Torah scholars, and to establish and maintain synagogues, yeshivot and other charitable institutions. Such a person rises to the highest levels as a result of his wealth. But on the other hand, money can cause a person to become arrogant and to lust after power and prestige, as in the case of Korah. And, as that tragic episode teaches, this effect of money results in a person’s downfall to the lowest depths of misery and misfortune.
Interestingly, the Ba’al Ha’turim adds, the Hebrew word “Oni” (“poverty”) also has the numerical value of 136. The unfortunate condition of poverty, of financial pressures, is a “ladder” just like wealth; it, too, can lead a person to either great heights or the lowest depths. Financial pressures can often lead a person to pursue money through improper means, through dishonesty, deception, or outright theft. This condition can also cause depression and anxiety, which are so destructive to one’s spiritual and emotional health. On the other hand, people on the lower economic rungs often enjoy a certain serenity and contentment that wealthy magnates find it difficult to achieve. The poor man is not concerned about the markets; he does not have to fret over different investment opportunities or endure the stress of competition in the marketplace. He can enjoy the little that he has, without worrying about what he does not have.
In short, Yaakob’s ladder teaches us that regardless of our condition, we can soar to the heavens or fall to the lowest levels. Only we determine whether to use our current situation to achieve spiritual greatness, or to plummet to spiritual depths. It is wrong to think that we cannot achieve in Torah and Missvot because of our current condition. Wherever life takes us, we are on a ladder – and we are the only ones who decide whether to ascend to the heavens, or to lower ourselves to the earth.