It could well be one of the most written about Biblical passages of all time – the dream of Ya’acov in which a ladder extends from the earth into the heavens and angels of Hashem are seen on the ladder, ascending and descending.
Dreams play a significant role in the Torah. In fact, there are ten of them in the Torah and all ten are in the Torah’s first book, Beresheit/Genesis. To be sure there are a significant number of dreams in Tanach as well for dreams play a significant role in the lives of the kings, prophets and judges of Israel.
Judaism understands dreams as vehicles of Divine inspiration and national prophecy as well as the means by which at times Hashem delivers a specific message or sign to an individual. The Sages have taught that dreams translate our experiences in this world into symbolic language and images. Dreams communicate emotions, perceptions, unrecognized motivations and feelings that are hidden away in our subconscious. When Hashem grants an individual a dream, it always has a purpose. He is communicating an answer to a problem perhaps, or exposing issues within us that need to be addressed.
This is not to say that every dream is a message from Hashem — not at all. There are for sure random dreams that are promptly forgotten when we awake. But the fact that Hashem still communicates with us through dreams must not be cast aside or we may well miss an important message which He desires to impart to us.
In our present case, the ‘Jacob’s Ladder Dream’, we have an example of a dream that is both a national prophecy and a personal message to the individual, Ya’acov.
A word about the context of the dream: at the end of last week’s parsha, we learned that Esav was furious with Ya’acov over the issue of the birthright and the blessing, and intended to kill his brother. Yitzhak and Rivka then decide to send Ya’acov away to the home of Rivka’s brother, Lavan, in Haran. Yitzhak commands his son to find a wife from “among our own people”, unlike Esav who married idolatrous wives and caused great heartache to Yitzhak and Rivka.
Ya’acov therefore undertakes his journey with a two-fold purpose: to escape his brother’s wrath and to take an important step towards fulfilling his destiny by finding a suitable wife with whom he will create the family that will become Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.
As he departs on this journey, Ya’acov is under tremendous stress. He is confident but also uncertain, has hope but also foreboding, he trusts his parents but also struggles with doubt.
In this conflicted state of mind, he arrives at what the Torah calls “the place” (b’makom).
The sun has set, not just physically but in symbolic language, the sun has set on Yaacov’s life as he has known it. Nothing will ever be the same again. At dawn the next morning, in a very real sense, his life begins anew.
Think about it – he has never been away from home before; he has never left the land of Israel and its inherent holiness; he has therefore never had to deal with the ‘outside’ world. There is alot on his mind!
Taking stones, he arranges them around his head and lays down to sleep. There is so much to be said around this dream that it is impossible to give it a thorough treatment in this short commentary so let’s just look at a few highlights.
One would expect that the text would read “angels were descending and ascending..” but in fact it says just the opposite. “…angels were ascending and descending..” As this was Ya’acov’s last stop before crossing the border towards Haran, we consider that the angels assigned to accompany those living within the land of Israel, specifically Ya’acov in this case, were ‘ascending’ since he was leaving the country and other angels were ‘descending..’ to accompany him and be with him in Haran.
Hashem Himself is at the top of the ladder and He is the only One who speaks to Ya’acov in the dream. Significantly, this is the first time in Torah that Hashem speaks directly to Ya’acov. Look at what He says:
“I am Hashem, God of Avraham your father and God of Yitzhak; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth and you shall spread out powerfully westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring. Behold I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done all that I have spoken about you.” Bresheit/Gen. 28:13-15
Notice the two parts of the message. First Hashem repeats the first covenant made with Avraham, the promise of the Land, which He now re-affirms to Ya’acov. He also re-affirms that Avraham’s descendants THROUGH YA’ACOV will be multitudes and will fill the earth. The entire earth’s population will be blessed through them. All of these promises have a national character and prophetic reality as regards the nation of Israel which will come from Ya’acov.
The second portion of Hashem’s message is personal to Ya’acov. He re-assures the conflicted Ya’acov that He, Himself, is with him, that Hashem Himself will guard him and be with him; the He will return Ya’acov to his homeland and that He will not forsake him, but rather that Ya’acov can be utterly confident that Hashem will fulfill every word He has spoken about Ya’acov’s destiny and purpose for living. In other words, in this brief message, Hashem answered every doubt, every anxiety, every fear, every uncertainty and gave Ya’acov the spiritual and emotional strength to go forth on this next step of his life’s journey.
The dream of Ya’acov is our dream, our reality, our destiny. Its deeper meaning speaks to all of us and its promise is as alive today as it was on the night that Ya’acov dreamed. The nations may rail against Israel and the Jewish people, but the Word of the Almighty is forever.
In Tune with Torah this week: if you have had a dream that has stayed with you, take some time this Shabbat to ponder what Hashem is saying to you through that dream. If you are struggling with an issue, a problem and having been looking for an answer, a solution, could it possibly be ‘hidden’ in the dream you had? Or perhaps Hashem will give you a dream in days to come. Learn to pay attention to your dreams and ask Hashem for their interpretation, lest you miss an important message He is trying to convey to you.