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The Dream of Faith

  • The Dream of Faith

    Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Leah and Rachel: Lessons Learned from Sisters
Davar Acher By: 
Randi Musnitsky

Our portion opens as Jacob sets out on a long journey to a distant land in order to escape the wrath of his brother, Esau. On his first night away from home, he falls asleep on the hard ground and dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven: "A stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky." (Genesis 28-12) The Ketav Sofer suggests that Jacob's assignment was to plant his feet solidly on the earth of the here and now and attend to the practical affairs of day-to-day living. Thus Jacob sets his sights on creating a new life for himself: Since he has left one family behind, practicality dictates that he establish a new home with the family of his uncle Laban. Love, marriage, and children become his hope for the future. His quest to fulfill these desires sets up the most intriguing story of sister rivalry in the Bible: the conflict between Leah and Rachel for the love of one man, their husband, Jacob.

The first time that Jacob sees the beautiful Rachel, "Jacob kissed Rachel and broke into tears." (Genesis 29:11) He was mesmerized by Rachel, who is described as "shapely and beautiful" in the text. (Genesis 29:17) It was love at first sight. Thus Jacob declares to his uncle Laban in Genesis 29:18: "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel." However, local custom dictated that the older sister must marry first. Rachel's older sister was Leah, who is described as having "weak" or "tender" eyes. (Genesis 29:17) Rashi tells us that Leah's eyes were tender because she wept constantly as she prayed that she would not have to marry Esau. People were saying that since Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters, the older daughter should marry the older son, Esau, while the younger daughter was destined to marry the younger son, Jacob.

Apparently Leah's prayers were answered: Laban substituted his older daughter to be Jacob's wife. Through deception and trickery, Laban set the stage for the intense jealousy between Rachel, who would always have to share the man she loved, and Leah, who would have to live with the knowledge that she was not Jacob's first choice.

Love, loss, pain, and betrayal could have become prominent themes in our portion, but Leah and Rachel strive to create a far more worthy legacy and teach a far more powerful lesson through their actions. Playing on the link between b'not, "daughters," and banot, "builders," the midrash in Genesis Rabbah portrays Leah and Rachel as the ultimate construction firm, building the entire nation of Israel one tribe at a time. Leah was blessed with six sons - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun - and the only daughter in the family, Dinah. Leah's maidservant, Zilpah, bore Gad and Asher. Rachel's maidservant, Bilhah, gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin. The lineage from these women has had an incredible impact on the destiny of our people: Moses, Aaron, Miriam, King David, King Solomon, and generations after them can all be traced to these women.

As rival sisters, Leah and Rachel could have devoted their time and energies to destroying each other in their quest to gain Jacob's favor. Instead, they chose to channel their feelings into a blessing for all generations. Each sister embodied different dimensions of beauty and love: Leah's was inward, as reflected by her depth and devotion, while Rachel's was outwardly visible, as denoted by her physical attraction and raw emotion. Ultimately, the sisters combined their forces to nurture and sustain a nation.

What lessons does this parashah teach?

  1. We live in a world obsessed by physical beauty. How important should possessing that attribute be? What makes a person "beautiful"?
  2. Explore the concepts of inner beauty versus outer beauty. Which would you want to possess and why? With which sister do you identify, Leah or Rachel? What makes them role models for today's youth?
  3. What role do envy and jealousy play in your life? Of whom are you jealous and why? Can jealousy be beneficial, or is it always destructive?

Rabbi Randi Musnitsky, D.Min., is the senior rabbi at Temple Har Shalom in Warren, New Jersey.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182