Jacob's Dream: Holy Land and Holy History

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3

D'Var Torah By: Yonatan Glaser

Focal Point

  • Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him. . . . (Genesis 28:10-13)

D'var Torah

One of my favorite pieces of outdoor sculpture in Jerusalem is a three-story-high, white staircase. I drive by it several times a month, and each time, I can't help but wonder whether it would be possible for me to climb it, although I know that the rakish angle of its steps makes that unlikely. Seeing it, I am continually thrilled by having Jacob's extraordinary dream evoked midday, mid-errand, mid-city. In Jerusalem there are reminders of holiness everywhere-even amidst one's urban routine.

But what does the stairway dream in Parashat Vayeitzei signify? The context of the dream is that, having "jumped queue" to receive his father's blessing ahead of Esau, Jacob sets off for Haran to escape his brother's wrath and to seek a wife. The dream occurs on the first night after he leaves Beer-sheba. In the dream, the stairway image is followed by a three-part promise by God: that Jacob will be given the Land, that Jacob's descendants will be dispersed and constitute a blessing to the families of the earth, and that God will bring Jacob back to "this land." What does the intriguing image of the angels on the stairway add to this three-part blessing, which can really stand on its own?

Midrash Tanchuma , a midrashic interpretation written during the time of the Roman Empire, wondered about the angels. Who were they and what did they represent? The midrash explains that the angels represent the different nations of the world, as follows: "These are the princes of the heathen nation . . . ascending and descending. . . . Jacob was afraid and said 'What if this one has no descent?' Said God, 'Even if thou seest him ascend and sit next to Me, I will bring him down.'"

That is, while different nations would ascend on the world stage, they would also fall from it. Yet why does the midrash describe Jacob as being worried that one of the nations may maintain its ascendancy forever? It states that Jacob feared that the rise of another nation would result in the suffering of the Israelite people. In fact, Sforno adds to this midrash, saying, "Ultimately, having gained ascendancy, the gentile princes will go down, and the Almighty, who stands above, will not forsake His people as He promised." Sforno continues, quoting Jeremiah 30:11, "For I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have scattered you, but I will not make a full end of you." So Sforno reinforces the view that God is supportive of Jacob and the people of Israel.

The JPS translation used in the Plaut commentary (The Torah: A Modern Commentary , ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 194) translates the phrase v'hinei Adonai nitzav alav , as "and Adonai was standing beside him," following Luzzatto, in that eilav , which means "by him" or "by it," refers to Jacob, not to the stairway. But the Hebrew language, in its typically rich way, allows for more than one reading. Midrash Tanchuma translates that same text to say that God was at the top of the stairway, and not next to Jacob. Therefore, according to this midrash, the other nations' ascent was not merely one of power, but also one of spirit-a drawing close to God. Perhaps this is why the midrash sees the passage as conveying Jacob's concern, not only for the Israelites' physical well-being, but also for their special, covenantal relationship with God, which seemed to be threatened by this stair-top arrangement.

A differing view of the dream's meaning was put forward by Rashi, who wondered why the text first says "ascended" and then says "descended"? Surely, Rashi reasoned, the angels should come down from the heavens first and then return by ascending. His answer is this: The dream took place exactly on the border of the Land of Israel. The angels going up are Israel-side angels; they have no passport and no permission to travel outside the Land. On the other hand, the angels coming down the ladder are diaspora angels. Accordingly to Rashi, "The angels that accompanied him [Jacob] in the Holy Land do not go outside the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to heaven. Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him."

Note that while Jacob was due to have divine protection everywhere, he needed one angel—or spiritual guide—in Eretz Yisrael , the Land of Israel, and a different angel outside of it. This makes me wonder whether spirituality and religious sensibility are different within Israel than they are in other places where Jews live. Some of us think of Israel as just another Jewish community that happens to be large or that manifests Jewish political desires and needs. But does Israel today, as Rashi suggests, also have a spiritual dimension—a holiness that is actually unique?

As Reform Jews, we are unlikely to accept the claim of "holy" geography-that Eretz Yisrael is a divinely super-charged piece of real estate. Some of our mystical forebears clearly did think that this is the case though, as, tragically, do some political extremists today. As we wonder about the meaning of Israel and of Zionism, we can consider the idea that a sovereign Jewish society living in covenant in its ancient homeland could create a profound distinction between Jewish life in Eretz Israel and Jewish life chutz l'Aretz, or "outside the Land of Israel." Our teacher Martin Buber helps us understand why:

. . . [While] love can be embodied only in the life of individuals, justice cannot be embodied except in the life of a nation and in the lives of nations. . . . It is only a nation which is able to establish justice both amongst its various parts-individuals and groups-and in its relations with other nations, for the sake of its own salvation and the salvation of humanity in the making. For this purpose, a nation requires independence and self-determination. (Martin Buber, "The Holy Way," in On Judaism [New York: Schocken Books, 1975], p. 112)

While Buber highlights justice, there are a host of values and issues that Zionism enables-in fact, demands-us to deal with as Jewish individuals and communities. These include violence and peace; social justice and materialism; poverty and access to education; tolerance and spiritual values; solidarity and freedom; community and national democracy; unemployment and health care; gender equality and the environment; and last, but not least, the civil, cultural, political, and legal rights of Israeli non-Jews, with Arabs, Bedouins, and foreign workers primary among them. No matter what issues you list-and such a list should be studied and debated-these are weighty ideas to consider. By expanding our horizons in this way, we stretch the canvas on which we paint our Jewish selves and add a myriad of colors to our palette. If it is true that to spread the light of tikkun olam, "repairing the world," we must first collect the sparks, then the renaissance of Jews and of Judaism in Israel, touching all aspects of life, is certainly full of promise.

We belittle Zionism and rob Judaism if we see Zionism merely as an extension of Judaism. Zionism shakes Judaism to its very foundations, inviting possibility and challenge in equal measure. Zionism fulfills Judaism, it tests Judaism, and it transforms Judaism. It does so no less than Reform Judaism does, yet in drastically different and complementary ways.

How can we best participate in this challenge? How can we immerse ourselves in Israel deeply enough, for a long enough time so that we are affected by it? How can we immerse ourselves individually and collectively in Israel, to influence her direction to be holy and sustainable? For answers to these questions, in the wide-awake world we inhabit, Jacob's dream provides for us some rich metaphorical answers.

By the Way

  • The people assumed that the Covenant was unconditional-that God would favor them under all circumstances and at all time. The prophets insisted that God would keep His part of the Covenant only so long as the people kept theirs. The Land would belong to them only so long as they used it to demonstrate how a society could be governed by righteousness and justice. This tension has continued throughout Jewish history, to this very day. (Seymour Rossel, Israel: Covenant, People Covenant Land[New York: UAHC Press, 1985], p. 31)

Your Guide

  1. Does Midrash Tanchuma suggest a causal link between the longevity of a nation and its adherence to certain values? Does it suggest this causal link in relation to the Jewish people?
  2. Do you think that living with spiritual sensitivity and connection to God are factors in personal longevity? Are they factors in the longevity of the Jewish people?

Yonatan Glaser is the founder and director of B'Tzedek and the LIFE Program.

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