Earlier this week I attended a concert performed by
‘Zeppelin Symphonic’ at the Palladium, a combined
orchestra and band playing the music of the ‘70s rock
legends – Led Zeppelin. Probably their best-known song is
‘Stairway to Heaven’ written by the guitarist and lead
singer Robert Plant.
This put me in mind of the beginning of ‘Vayetze’ where
we are told that Yaakov had a dream ‘and behold! a ladder,
set up toward the earth, and the top of it reached to
heaven, and behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and
descending upon it…’ (28:12).
The sages have interpreted this verse homiletically – ‘as we
strive to improve ourselves and our relationships, we must
always look up, because, if a person merely tries to remain
where he or she is, then gravity will surely pull them
However, Rav Avraham Zalman, a leader in the Mussar
movement, derives three further insights.
First, just as a ladder has many rungs which a person can
use to support themselves, when attempting to improve
one’s character it is necessary to take a methodical
approach – step by step. For example, a person who simply
states, ‘I’m never going to gossip again!’ will probably fail
within days and may well give up on the attempt. To stand
a chance of success one must continuously study, practice
and discipline oneself to overcome embedded negative
behaviours. These, say Rav Zalman, are the rungs of the ladder.
Second, a ladder cannot stand unless it is supported by a
solid object. A person needs positive role models and
paragons of ethical conduct to guide them safely upwards.
And finally, if a person encounters difficulties, if he or she
slips back or struggles with a broken rung — all is not lost.
One must catch hold of the next and start moving again.
‘This is normal’, he says, ‘it is even the path of those who
are like the Angels of G-d — truly righteous people’. They
are not naive, attempting to rush straight to the top.
Rather, they go up a bit, then they may go down a bit, but
they persevere (think the game snakes and ladders).
Rav Zalman concludes, ‘too often, people try to achieve
perfection overnight, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a
slow process and slipping back is
inevitable. The challenge is not to be discouraged, and
certainly not to give up. This is how we can rise above our
current state and reach our goals’.
Could this be why Robert Plant described his musical
masterpiece as ‘a song of hope’?