Parashat Vayetze: Yaakov's Dream

[Tal Chermon]

Yaakov emerged from the previous parashah ready to perform two tasks: the moralization of the physical world and the advancement of the spiritual world. Yaakov was destined to establish both the means and the tools for fulfilling our objectives and to improve and uplift the very soul, the very purpose, of our existence (Orot, Orot Ha-Techiyah, p. 16).

When Yaakov left Beer Sheva, running away from his brother Esav, his situation was far from ideal. He was homeless, unmarried, and completely penniless. He was the first exile in our history. What did the future hold for him? What would become of him? These questions must have gnawed away at Yaakoc while he fled. But then he had a dream. There are different types of dreams. There are lofty dreams, which are sparks of prophecy, and there are dreams that are complete nonsense. "A man is shown in his dreams only those things about which he has given great thought" (Berachot 55b). The content of the dream therefore depends on the identity of the dreamer and the quality of his thoughts (an example of this is given in the Gemara (ibid. 56) when Shevor Malka, the King of Persia, said to the Talmudic Rabbi, Shmuel: "People say that you are a sage. If this is really so, tell me what I will dream about tonight." Shmuel answered him: "You will dream that you have been routed by the Roman army, have been taken prisoner, and are forced to grind date pits with a golden mill." The strangeness of this answer bothered the king so much that he thought about it the entire day and, sure enough, dreamt about it that night). Yaakov's dream reflects his innermost thoughts, and his raison d'etre in life (Moreh Nevuchim part 1, chap. 36). There are two elements in his dream. The first is the Divine promise: "I am G-d…The Land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth. You shall burst forth and spread to the West, East, North and South…I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this Land. I will not leave you until I have fully kept this promise to you (Bereshit 28:13-15)."

Hashem’s words assure Yaakov that, in contrast to his present pitiful and humiliating state, his future will be glorious, and he will be guarded and protected in the long trek that leads to it.

The second element of the dream is the vision of the ladder. "And behold he dreamed and a ladder was set on the earth and its top reached up toward heaven" (Bereshit 28:12). The ladder links heaven with earth. It is "set towards” earth (ibid.), i.e. from heavenly matters it directs itself towards earthly concerns. But it also "reaches heaven" (ibid.), meaning that all earthly needs draw their significance from heavenly considerations.

The ladder is Yaakov himself, who is both heavenly and earthly. On the one hand he embodies spirituality, which is used to improve the physical world. On the other, he lives a material existence, which is governed by the spirit. These are the two faces of Yaakov.

The vision is not static. There is dynamic movement as "the angels of G-d ascend and descend it [the ladder]" (ibid.). They ascend to heaven to charge themselves with Divine spirituality and then descend to illuminate the world with it. The righteous do not suffice with a personal spiritual elevating experience, but they return to the mundane world and use their spiritual acquisition to improve it (Moreh Nevuchim 1, chap. 15). In the Akeidah experience, Avraham reached such awe-inspiring spiritual heights that the youths who had accompanied him on the way were not allowed to be present. Despite the fact that the two attendants were none other than the two outstanding personalities, Yishmael and Eliezer (Rashi on Bereshit 22:5), Avraham instructs them: "Stay here with the donkey, while I and the lad go yonder" (Bereshit 22:5). Avraham's trust in Eliezer was so profound that he sent him to find a wife for Yitzchak who would share in the momentous task of founding the Jewish Nation. Furthermore, it is said of him: "He drew forth teachings from his Rav and transmitted them to others" (Yoma 28b). Despite these qualities, with regard to the sublime spiritual revelation at the Akeidah, Yishmael and Eliezer were equivalent to the donkey. The verse says: "stay here with the donkey" and our Rabbis add that in relation to the Akeidah: "You are people who are no better than a donkey" (Yevamot 62a). This event would be so extraordinarily incomprehensible that if witnessed by them they would either be struck mad or lose all faith in G-d. Avraham therefore proceeded alone and ascended to such heights that it was beyond the grasp of ordinary human morality. Did Avraham remain in his heavenly state, detached from and unconcerned with the prosaic world? No! "And Avraham returned to his lads and they arose and went together to Beer Sheva" (Bereshit 22:19). Despite his soul's leap to loftiness, Avraham remained attached to his material surroundings and endeavored to inspire them. He stooped down to the lads, who had remained at the level of the donkey, and offered them a helping hand in order to uplift and advance them (Olat Re'eiyah vol. 1, p. 96). Moreover, his very descent paved the way for the next ascent.

Then Yaakov awoke from the dream, "And he was frightened. He exclaimed: 'How awe-inspiring is this place! It must be G-d's Temple. It is the gate to heaven'" (Bereshit 29:17). He did not attribute the privilege of this vision to his own self-worth, but to the sanctity of the place. He thus did not even thank Hashem for this prophetic vision and for all the promises made to him. He knew that through the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, which was the "house of G-d and the gate of heaven," he would be able to fulfill his task of connecting heaven and earth. The Divine Presence existed here on earth and the mundane aspired towards heaven (Kuzari – section 2). "The Holy One Blessed Be He rolled together the whole of Eretz Yisrael under him [Yaakov]" (Rashi on Bereshit 28:13). Yaakov dreamed that in this special environment of Eretz Yisrael he would manage to perform the task for which he was so well suited: uniting heaven and earth.