Commentary on Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
Q: What do you get when you cross Martin Luther King and Led Zeppelin?
A: The dream of a stairway to heaven or….this week’s Torah portion.
Parashat Vayetzei Begins:
And Jacob went out from Beersheva and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and stayed there all night, because the sun was set. And he took of the stones of the place and put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood beside him and said:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie to you will I give it, and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go and I will not leave you, until I have done all that I have spoken of to you.’ And Jacob woke up out of his sleep and said: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.’
The story of Jacob’s dream has inspired countless paintings and poems over the millennia. What is it about this passage that has made it so personal for so many throughout the ages? Is it the dream itself (something which every person does)? Or perhaps it is the angels (which provide a source of comfort)? Is it the image of God as an imminent force so near to us and watching over us wherever we may be? Or is it the promise of redemption and blessing for all humankind?
Torah Portion Navigator
1: “He lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed” Is there a difference between a dream (while one is asleep) as Jacob had, and a vision (while one is awake) as did Abraham and Isaac?
2: “Behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” What is the significance of a ladder? After all if angels are celestial beings did they really need a ladder to get from heaven to earth (the whole wings thing we can leave for another time)?
Does the statement that it is set up on the earth and its top reach to heaven imply that there is a direct connection between heaven and earth? If so, where or what is it?
3: “And through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” How have the nations of the world been blessed through the descendants of Jacob? Are they still?
4: “And Jacob woke up out of his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.'” Is there any place where God is not?
Bereshit Rabba 68:11
1: “And he dreamed”–Rabbi Abbahu said, “Dreams have no influence whatsoever.” “Bar Kappara taught, “No dream is without its interpretation.”
What is the difference between these statements? Can a dream have no influence on a person yet still have significance worth interpretation?
2: “The Rabbis related it to Sinai.”–The ladder symbolizes Mount Sinai. The angels symbolize Moses and Aaron. “And behold the Lord stood beside him” symbolizes that God came down on Sinai.
Is there anything beyond an allegory to connect Jacob’s dream to the Revelation at Sinai?
According to the tradition, if two words share the same gematria (numerical equivalent) then there is a deeper connection between them. The connection the rabbis show is that the ladder (sulam) and Sinai each have the gematria of 130. Sinai is the ladder that connects the physical world and the spiritual world.
Every human being has dreams. Jacob had a dream and he saw the mountaintop: Sinai! Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once wrote, “The fact of the matter is that a person can dream when he’s asleep and can dream when he’s awake. But only the dreams that one dreams when he/she is awake can become transformed into the visions which change reality.”
May each of us wake from our sleep and see, like Jacob, that “Surely the Lord is in this (and every) place and we did not know it.” If we take our dreams and transform them into visions, and turn our visions into reality, then we will fulfill the promise of God to our father Jacob, “Through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
Pronounced: guh-MAH-tree-yuh, Origin: Greek, a numerological system by which Hebrew letters correspond to numbers, used in Jewish mysticism as a way of interpreting Jewish texts.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.