This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob’s famous vision of the Heavenly Ladder, upon which he saw angels “ascending and descending” (Genesis 28:12). Many of our Sages have pointed out that the gematria of “ladder” (סלם) is equivalent with “Sinai” (סיני). The Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) states that Jacob saw a vision of his descendants receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Zohar goes on to discuss the profound connection between the two, focusing on the mysterious words of Psalm 68, which describes the Sinai Revelation.
It begins by stating that atop the Ladder, Jacob saw the chief angel Metatron, the “elder” of the Heavens. In the Talmud (Chagigah 14b), we read how the rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate after ascending to Heaven and seeing Metatron, the Heavenly “scribe”, sitting on what appeared to be a throne. In a serious error, Elisha confused Metatron for some kind of deity of his own. The Talmud doesn’t say too much more on this, but the Zohar passage here clarifies the matter.
On the following page (I, 149b), the Zohar says that God descends and ascends to various worlds. This is based on a number of Scriptural verses which describe God as “riding in the Heavens”, most notably Psalm 68:5. That Psalm goes on to say: “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.” (68:18) There is a cryptic set of words in this Psalm: rechev Elohim ribotayim alphei shinan (רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן). The Sages traditionally interpreted this verse to mean that God travels with 22,000 “divine chariots”, since revavah means 10,000, and ribotayim would mean 20,000, while alphei shinan can be read as “a thousand, repeated”, or two thousand, totalling 22,000 rechev Elohim, “vehicles of God”.
Elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 3b), the Sages interpreted this verse differently: God rides through many worlds, and ribotayim alphei shinan means 20,000 minus two thousand! In other words, God “rides” in the Heavens through 18,000 worlds (see also Zohar I, 24a). Another support for this calculation comes from Ezekiel 48:35, which describes a future rebuilt Jerusalem having dimensions of 18,000 measures. Since the lower world is a reflection of the upper world, the verse can be interpreted mystically to allude to 18,000 worlds in the Heavens above. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) cites this same verse to suggest that at any given time, there must be 18,000 righteous people on Earth upon whom the Divine Presence may dwell, perhaps paralleling the 18,000 worlds above through which God regularly journeys.
(An interesting aside: I once read a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the question of extraterrestrial life. He answered that there is no reason why there cannot be life on other worlds, and believing so would be limiting God! In a related responsum, the Rebbe cited the above teaching as suggesting that there may indeed be life on 18,000 other worlds—otherwise why would God have need to travel there?)
Our Zohar passage gives a different interpretation to the words alphei shinan. It is important to point out that this unique term appears nowhere else in the Tanakh. The word aleph can mean one thousand, but it also means “chief” or “master”. The Zohar takes it to mean that it refers to God’s main angels. On the second and more mysterious word, shinan (שנאן), the Zohar says it is an acronym for “bull” (shor), “eagle” (nesher), “lion” (aryeh), and human (represented by the nun sofit, which requires a discussion of its own). These are the four “faces” of the Divine Chariot as described in the opening chapter of Ezekiel. And so, the Zohar concludes that Psalm 68 is alluding to God’s “entourage”, the group of chief angels who ride alongside God as He journeys through His worlds.
Who are these angels? The Zohar names them: Michael, Kadmiel, Pada’el, Gabriel, Tzadkiel, Hasdiel, Raphael, Raziel, Setoriah, Nuriel, Yofiel, and Ana’el. And these are the very angels that Jacob saw in his vision of the Heavenly Ladder. In the lower world they parallel the twelve sons of Jacob, all of which is alluded to in Jacob’s placing twelve stones under his head before the vision, as he went to sleep in that special place (Genesis 28:11).
Who’s in Charge While God’s “Away”?
Let’s return to Metatron, the elder angel that Jacob saw atop the Ladder, and the one that led Elisha ben Avuyah to apostasy. What was he doing sitting in Heaven? Why did Elisha ben Avuyah confuse him for a deity? The Zohar implies that while God is “away” on His Heavenly journeys, it is Metatron who is taking care of business. This is a very dangerous idea (as Elisha demonstrates) and must be understood properly.
Of course, God is never away. God is everywhere, every-when, and in charge of everything (as the Zohar explicitly affirms). God is the infinite force that permeates all things, in Heaven and on Earth. God is totally transcendent, and has no distinct physical form, in any realm. And so, He has designated certain corporeal entities to be in positions of leadership throughout His worlds. Just like here on Earth we have leaders that are vested with certain responsibilities, so too are there such leaders in the Heavens. Metatron is chief among them. However, it should never be forgotten that, to use the Zohar’s own words, Hashem shalta al kola, “God rules over them all”.
Now we can answer an even deeper question, and with it close the circle of Jacob’s vision of Sinai and the Ladder. We have stated that God is totally incorporeal and has no form. In that case, from Whom did Moses receive the Torah at Sinai? What did Moses see? Who dictated the Torah to him? Who showed Moses what to write and how to write it?
The answer: It was, of course, the Heavenly Scribe—Metatron. He is that entity charged with writing things down in Heaven, including the Heavenly Torah. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) writes that it was Metatron who served as Moses’ Heavenly teacher. And so, when Jacob looked up the Ladder, and saw Sinai unfold before him, he saw Metatron at the top, teaching Moses and showing him how to scribe. Along the rungs of the Ladder, Jacob saw those twelve angels that accompany God, just as at Sinai the nation witnessed the same group of angels, at the heads of 22,000 chariots. In this way, Jacob saw a clear vision of his future descendants, the tribes that emerged from his twelve sons, receiving the Torah at Sinai.