The Power of Our Dreams, Both Asleep and Awake

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin

Dreams are an essential human experience. They tell us what we desire, what we lack, what we need, and what we should work toward. We may dream while we are in bed, but the dreams that guide us while we awake are just as important. The book of Genesis contains many famous dreams, and this week’s parashahParashahפָּרָשָׁהTorah portion. The five books of the Torah are divided into 54 parashiyot or portions. Each week, Jewish communities read one parashah (singular of parashiyot); in this way, Jewish communities read the entire Torah over the course of a year.  Depending on the calendar, some weeks will feature a “double-portion.” The name of each portion is taken from the first few significant words of the portion; plural: parashiyot , Vayeitzei, contains one of the most famous dreams ever recorded: the vision of Jacob’s ladder.

The dream’s central image is a ladder reaching from the ground up to the heavens with angels going up and coming down. This text has fired the imagination of both commentators and artists, casual readers and religious visionaries. In this reflection, given the ladder is grounded on the earth, I want to reflect on the different locations suggested for the dream in our commentaries.

The word makom, “place,” is mentioned three times in the description of Jacob’s ladder, and there are three possible earthly locations mentioned: Beersheva, Mount Moriah (the Temple mount), and Mount Sinai. Each of them challenges us to ground our dreams and visions in a distinct way.

The significance of the name Beersheva appears in Genesis 21: 27, 31:

Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a pact…Hence the place was called Beer-sheba, for there the two of them swore an oath.

The first home of the Jewish people is a place where an agreement is struck between the family of Abraham and the people of the land. This dream, therefore, faces outward, challenging us to connect with and value people with different rituals, history, and values. The divine promise to our people stands on our ability to reach out and respect those identified as “other.” Tikkun olamtikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice. is an essential element of these Jewish dreams.

Another suggested location is Mount Moriah (or Mount Zion). This location is the backdrop for the AkeidahAkeidahעֲקֵדָה"Binding." The story in Genesis of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son, which is read on Rosh HaShanah. in the next chapter of Genesis and for all future (actual) sacrifices offered by Israel. The act of sacrifice is called korban, which means “drawing near.” While the ancient Temple rites were detailed religious ceremonies, their primary purpose was to draw Israel closer to God, to the covenant between the Jewish people and the Holy One. The Beit HaMikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, was a place focussed on internal Jewish images, realities, and rites. While we are drawn to a wider world, Mount Moriah symbolizes responsibility for specific Jewish traditions, learning, and destiny. If we do not have dreams of who Am YisraelAm Yisraelעַם יִשְׂרָאֵלLiterally, “the people of Israel.” The nation or people of Israel. The Jewish people. can become, who will?

Mount Sinai’s suggestion as a possible location is based partly in gematria, Jewish numerology. In his commentary, Rabbi Joseph Karo notes that the Hebrew word for ladder, sulam, spelled without a vav in the Torah, has a numerical value of 130: the same value as the name Sinai. This name, which happens to be the name of the congregation I serve in Toronto, is not some geographical reference. Sinai is the place of revelation, of sharing spiritual truth and learning. It is the name of the full connection between human beings and God. I believe many of us are hungry today for sacred dreams and holy visions.

Certainly, we can all participate in these kinds of dreams, and not only while we’re asleep. Our individual natures may tend most toward Jewish learning, spirituality, and mysticism, tikkun olam, or something else entirely. I believe we should follow our individual dreams and hone our special abilities so that we can strengthen those around us and ourselves.

In what ways will you dream this week?