Yaakov's Ladder — a Symbol of Prayer
While the wondrous journey of prayer reaches the highest Heavenly realms, it begins in this physical and lowest of all worlds. Accordingly, when one prays with proper intention his prayers are likened to a spiritual ladder, complete with all its rungs (Ba’al Ha’Turim). As a person prays, his soul climbs this ladder ― rung by rung ― ascending higher and drawing closer to the more sublime realms above. Since the revelation of G-d’s light is far more intense in the upper worlds, the experience of prayer is a great help in refining and purifying man's soul (Arizal).
We find an allusion to the above idea in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: “And he (Yaakov) dreamed, and behold! A ladder was set earthward, and its top reached heavenward; and behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it (Ber. 28:12).”
The Rambanexplains that the place where Yaakov lay down to sleep is the same place where the Beit Hamikdash was eventually built, and it is from there that all prayers ascend to Heaven. That is why, when Yaakov awoke, he declared: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of G-d, and this is the Heavenly gate.”
The phrase, “This is the Heavenly Gate” teaches us that all prayers ascend, and all blessing descend at the place of the Beit Hamikdash, and from there they spread to the entire world. This is because Jerusalem is the heart and life source of the world.
The angels mentioned in Yaakov's dream, whose main occupation is the perpetual praise of G-d, can be understood as a reference to the Jewish people, who, when involved in prayer and praising God, resemble angels ascending to Heaven.
Accordingly, the Zohar explains that one should liken oneself to the angels during prayer. This is why we stand with our feet together for the Amidah standing prayer, as it is written about the angels, “Their legs were a straight leg,” as if to say that their legs appeared as one.
Since the angels in Yaakov’s dream represent the Jewish people in prayer, we are told first of their ascent, and then their descent. This is in accordance with the process of the daily prayers which first flow from below to above, and then from above to below. The reason for this is that after one completes the ascent to Heaven, he must channel G-d’s blessings back down to this physical world.