Today’s daf (Eruvin 77b) contrasts two types of ladders and their respective efficacy in terms of ‘reducing the height’ of a wall – as defined by the ease with which someone can ascend to a specific height of that wall.
We are told that the Egyptian ladder (סולם מצרי) – which is an easy to carry ladder with less than four rungs – ‘does not reduce’, while a Tyrian ladder (סולם צורי) – which is an extremely heavy ladder with many rungs – ‘does reduce’.
Reflecting on this, I realized that this contrast offers a powerful metaphor about the steps it takes to reach great heights – personally, professionally and spiritually.
There are those who think that that can ‘make it’ with little effort, little toil, little ‘grit’, and without having to engage with certain rungs of life.
But as Iyov (Job) 5:7 teaches us, כי אדם לעמל יולד – ‘humanity was born to toil’, on which the Malbim explains, סוף דבר שעקר הצלחת האדם תלוי בהשתדלותו ובעמלו ויגיע כפו – ‘at the end of the day, the essence of our success depends on effort, perseverance, and hard work’. From here we learn that the ladders that lead to success are generally those that are heavy and which require us to ascend many rungs.
As mentioned, this applies in all areas of life. Nonetheless, it is particularly in the realm of spirituality where I often encounter people who think that growth can occur without effort, and who believe that they can live a vibrant Jewish life but without the sweat or the investment of energy. Through such remarks, such people demonstrate not only a lack of understanding that ‘according to the effort is the reward’ (Avot 5:23), but also a lack of awareness that – as Rav Soloveitchik explains in ‘Sacred and Profane’ – ‘the religious experience is fraught with pitfalls and continual challenge’.
In fact, having already begun exploring the concept of the two ladders mentioned in today’s daf as a metaphor of growth, I encountered the fascinating insight of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne in his ‘Toldot Yaakov Yosef’ (Parshat Tzav) who – while also making reference to today’s daf – explains that just as Bnei Yisrael worked hard while enslaved in Egypt to maintain four different religious practices in order to hold onto their identity, so too, Jewish continuity is only achieved if our spiritual ladder contains at least four rungs – and likely many more!
Today, there are those who believe that it is possible to climb great heights with little effort, and there are those who peddle light ladders with few rungs and claim that these are equally effective and heavy ladders with many rungs.
However, as Rabbi Sacks explains, ‘the easier the religion, the less it will be observed… we value most that for which we make sacrifices. Judaism survived two thousand years of exile, not because it was easy but because it was difficult, sometimes heartbreakingly so. It is normally assumed that Jews made sacrifices for their faith because they valued it. The opposite may also be true: Jews valued their faith because they made sacrifices for it… Judaism, with its 613 commands and its vast literature that requires years of study to master, is about doing hard things. That was why, throughout the ages, Jews valued it and sought to hand it on to their children. They knew there were easier options, and they declined them. When people made Judaism easy, they found that their children preferred other ways of life.’ (Future Tense pp. 66-67)