We have all stood where Jacob stands in Parashat Vayeitzei. Who amongst us has not at times felt lost and alone, in search of some sense of belonging? Have we not experienced times when things appeared to be so confusing that we were prepared to reach out for help of any kind? In this portion Jacob finds himself in such a position. Fleeing from the conspiracies he encountered in last week's parashah and in search of his ancestral family, Jacob arrives at "a certain place." (Genesis 28:11) The physical and emotional stress of life has exhausted him, and he retreats into sleep, there to be confronted by a strange dream. A sulam or ladder appears to him, and "angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him." (Genesis 28:12) God promises blessings and protection to Jacob and his descendants. Then Jacob awakes and, aware that something mysterious has occurred, blesses that place.
How many of us in moments of crisis or despair have not wished for a sign from God? How many of us, in those times when we feel most alone and alienated from the world, have not harbored the fantasy that if we could just fall asleep, we would wake up to find that what was bothering us was nothing more than a dream? Many commentators have suggested that the ladder represents Jacob's desire to be delivered from the realities of his life at that time. The reality is that Jacob has been cut off from his family and sent away "for his own good" by his mother. He is a young man in search and in need of relationships. Naomi Rosenblatt, in her Wrestling With Angels, notes that God responds to Jacob's "wish fulfillment dream" by offering Jacob "a ladder out of his despair, a bridge connecting heaven and earth" that promises Jacob he shall be restored to family, home, and blessings. "Jacob," writes Rosenblatt, "has a rough passage before him, but he knows for the first time that he will never be alone, that he is indeed special, wanted, and chosen." (Naomi Rosenblatt, Wrestling With Angels, New York: Delacorte, 1995, p. 262)
Think about Jacob's need for connection, love, and purpose! Is he not like all of us? Don't we all need to feel that we are wanted, special, and chosen, especially, as in Jacob's case, during moments when we feel most alone? Is Jacob really each of us? Is the ladder really a representation of our own wishes?
Perhaps, then, when Jacob observes that "surely God was in this place, and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16), he is referring to his own soul. Another contemporary commentator writes: "The ladder is a projection of what is in the heart, and the angels are the feelings, the emotions, that are in the heart, that in some cases raise us up toward our aspirations and in some cases drag us down in the other direction. Jacob's dream is a dream of the vicissitudes of the heart." (The View From Jacob's Ladder, David Curzon, Philadelphia: JPS, 1996, p. 48)
Faith, however, is a fluid thing. The genius of the Torah is that it presents and represents people and issues that are very real. Once Jacob has received this blessing and assurance, one would think that this event would have changed him in some profound way. Look, however, at Jacob's response after he sets up a stone as a pillar to mark the place and event: "If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house - Adonai shall be my God." (Genesis 28:20-21) Isn't this a curious response for one who has just had such an experience? Despite his dream, Jacob is still not ready for a deeper relationship with God: He still can only process the experience through the filter of his own self. He still wants to give God conditions for his faith!
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min., is the Founder and Director of Jewish Sacred Aging and has served for over three decades on the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism.