Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayetzei December 2, 2011

As this week’s Torah portion opens, Yaacov leaves Beer Sheva for Charan where his mother’s brother lives.  His parents have sent him there to seek a wife from among his own people.  Early in his travels, he reaches what the Torah calls “the place” and lays down to sleep.  During the night Hashem gives him a dream which is highly significant and important to Yaacov and all his descendants to this very day.  We commonly refer to this event as “Yaacov’s Ladder”.

Dreams have been the subject of extensive psychological research and long before modern psychology delved into this subject, the Sages of old cautioned us to pay attention to our dreams as they very often carry a message from heaven.  We know that in the Torah several dreams are pivotal to the unfolding of Jewish history.  In a couple of weeks we will be studying Yosef and his dreams which are no less important than the one we meditate on this Shabbat.

What multiple insights can we gain from Yaacov’s dream of a ladder planted firmly in the earth and reaching to the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it?

Keeping in mind that entire books have been written about the implications of this dream, we will look at just a fraction of its significance.

The dream is symbolic of Israel’s future and the Sages note the following various insights that support this thesis:

1) it alludes to the giving of the Torah at Sinai where Moshe and Aharon ascended and descended Mt. Sinai.  Interestingly, the gematria (numerical value) of the word ladder — ‘sulam’ is exactly the same as the gematria for ‘Sinai’ — the value of both words is 130.

2) the ladder also alludes to the altar in the Temple which would be built in the future.  The altar stood on the ground but the fragrance of its sacrifices ascended to the heavens and the angels are symbolic of the cohanim (priests) who ascended to the altar to offer the sacrifices and then descended afterwards.

3) it also foretells the exile of the Jewish people and the destruction of the Temple.  In Daniel 3 we read that Nebuchadnezzar, who took the Jews into exile, built a very tall idol.  In Hebrew the word ‘ladder’ as we saw above is ‘sulam’ and the very same Hebrew letters transposed form the word ‘semel which is ‘idol’ or ‘statue’.  The Midrash says that Yaacov saw the guardian angels of the great empires — Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome — ascend the rungs of the ladder in turn and then fall to the ground.  The angel over Babylon climbed 70 steps and fell – the angel of Persia climbed 52 steps and fell, the angel of Greece climbed 180 rungs and fell and lastly the angel of Edom (Rome) climbed so high that Yaacov became frighted that Edom would reach the Throne of Glory.  Hashem answered Yaacov by saying that Edom (Rome) will climb almost to the heavens but will ultimately fall for only Israel — in the end — will climb all the way to Hashem’s Throne of Glory and not fall back.

4) finally, an additional meaning brought forth is that the world is like a ladder; the cycles of the history of nations and peoples is one of ascending and descending.  Nations and empires rise and fall.  So do people.  Each of us has ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in life yet through it all, like with Yaacov, “Hashem stands over us” to be with us and keep us through all of life’s expected and unexpected events.

In Tune with Torah this week = considering our own dreams in light of this one given to our forefather, Yaacov and asking Hashem to illuminate our minds to perceive whatever messages He communicates to us.  Shabbat Shalom!

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