Parshat Va-yetzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Jacob’s Dreams and Jacob’s Children
Family is important. Jacob stopped to rest en route from Beersheva to Haran, also known as Paddan-Aran. Haran was the dwelling place of Terah, his three sons, Abraham, Nahor and Haran, from which Abraham, then called Abram, left the family homestead and went on to Canaan. In Haran, Abraham’s two brothers – Nahor and Haran – along with their children and grandchildren, lived. Among those grandchildren was Laban, grandson of Nahor and brother of Rebekah.
Haran (the place, spelled with a chef versus a heh) comes from the Hebrew word, har, meaning “mountain,” but the word can also mean “parched,” an unlikely association of the place name given how the flocks and sheep and goats under Jacob’s care flourished during his courtship of Rachel. En route to Haran, Jacob stopped to rest where he had his famous dream of the ladder between heaven and earth and the angels ascending and descending the ladder or staircase. Jacob would name the place Beth-el, God’s abode, after he had that dream.
Family and diachronic relations are not the only items of primary importance in the Torah. Each specific place (makom) and its name, the synchronic reference, always rivals the account of descendents, the diachronic dimension of the Torah. Parshat Va-yetzei, the departure, or, more precisely, “he went out,” is the place of the home of Jacob’s father and his brother, Esau, the place from which he fled. Perhaps the section is as much about the place that he left as the place he stopped to rest or the place, Haran, to which he travelled. Between the two, the place he grew up in and now feared, and the place in which he placed his future hopes, was the place he named Beth-el, which means house of God, God’s abode, where God is first worshipped in one place. Beth-el was where Jacob received his first revelation directly from God in the form of a dream.
The importance of that place is stressed, as usual, by repetition. Since in a few sentences, macom is used six times, Beth-el is clearly a very important place. It is where Jacob’s famous dream takes place of the stairway to heaven or the ladder joining earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending those steps or the rungs of a ladder.
He had a dream; a stairway (more accurately, a sulam, probably a ziqqarat or ramp though I will continue to use the tem “ladder” as that is how the dream is best known) was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 13 And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. 14 Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15 Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Genesis 28:12-15)
The Lord God was standing beside him or, in an alternative translation, at the top of the ladder in the dream. God directly promises Jacob, first that the land on which he rests and that He promised to Abraham, will be the land of Jacob and his descendents. Second, God promised Jacob that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth, settling everywhere, east and west, north and south. Third, God promised that all nations will be blessed through the nation founded by Jacob. Fourth, God promises Jacob protection until he returns to his homeland.
This is more or less the same promise that Jacob received from his father, Isaac, nine verses earlier, before Jacob set out for Haran. There were several significant differences however. Isaac never included the third promise that other nations would be blessed as a result of the nation that will be the product of Jacob’s loins. Second, Isaac never promised Jacob that God would protect him until his return. Third, the order of the first two promises is reversed. The promise of being fruitful, of having many progeny and becoming a congregation of peoples, precedes rather than comes after the promise of ownership of the land.
God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham. (Genesis 28:3-4)
This blessing was very different than the one Jacob supposedly tricked his father into giving him when it was presumably intended for Esau. That blessing promised enormous wealth and prosperity. That blessing promised, not that other nations would be blessed through the mediation of Jacob’s descendents, but that nations would serve and bow down to Jacob. Other nations who curse the house of Jacob would be cursed. Other nations that bless the house of Jacob would be blessed.
God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.2 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you. (Genesis 27:28-29)
In the third of these three blessings, the only one given directly by God, promises for the future are clear. But what was the meaning of a ladder or staircase joining heaven and earth? What is the meaning of the angels traipsing up and down? And where precisely was God standing in the dream? To the last question, there are three answers. God was at the top of the ladder. God was on the ground beside Jacob. Third, the meaning could be equivocal and suggest that God was in both places at one and the same time. I suggest the second answer as the clearer meaning. God was on the ground beside Jacob.
Generally the dream is interpreted as angels, servants or messengers of God, running up towards God and down to mankind as intermediaries. But that is odd because the very sense of the dream is that God is talking to Jacob directly and not through any intermediary. Further, angels are not always intermediaries. Before God gave the Torah to Moses, the angels in heaven, according to the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) evidently protested, insisting that angels are better designed to honour and cherish it. But Moses took up the challenge and insisted that since they (the angels) had neither children nor parents, they could not follow the mitzvah of honouring parents, The Torah was, therefore, meant for humans because humans had progeny.
However, if those traipsing up and down are literally angels, why would they need a staircase or a ladder or, for that matter, a ramp? They can fly up to heaven and down to earth. Yet virtually every commentator I have read insists they were actually angels. The debate is over the meaning of the ladder or staircase, some interpreting it diachronically as representing progressive stages in history, others interpreting the ladder as representing different stages in the rise to spirituality from human degradation where, after the so-called Fall, man was a “vessel of shame and disgrace, empty and wanting.” In either case, then those running up and down cannot be angels because they do not have ethical lives on earth that can be improved and they are not characterized as having higher and lower degrees of spirituality.
Rashi interprets the dream as having a strictly earthly and synchronic dimension, in keeping with the repetition of “place”. The ladder stood on the boundary between Eretz Israel and the diaspora. Most commentators, however, take the hierarchy of spirituality approach. Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed (I.15) argues the angels are the prophets who serve to translate the meaning of Torah to the rest of humanity. God then is not standing beside Jacob on the ground, but at the head of the ladder. He is the unchanging constant, the stabilizer and reference point for humanity in terms of which we can measure the development of our rationality in true Aristotelian style in reference to the Unmoved Mover that is God. The Torah is not in service to man, but casts man in the role of a servant to God in strong opposition to the view that humanity is dearer than the entire world, even real angels.
A Chassidic disciple of the Vilna Gaon agreed that the ladder represented different stages of spiritual development and stressed, not human reasoning or even thought more generally, but deeds, deeds that try to be more worthy of God. In the Zohar, the ladder is not actually on the ground but is anchored in heaven where spirit (ruach) and the soul (nefesh) are united and can then descend into the hearts of man. At least the Torah is seen for the benefit of man rather than seeing man as only put on Earth to worship God as mankind aspires to move upwards towards God. In the latter view, man is base and must overcome his evil ways.
Is the Torah God-centered or human-centered? Are intermediaries needed? As I reflected on these and other interpretations, I grew very tired. As most people know, I get up very early. But I do not usually go back to bed for a nap until after breakfast and I have finished my blog. This morning I became overwhelmingly tired. I lied down and instantly fell asleep. That instant sleep is common. Most unusual, however, I had a dream. I even remembered it.
The angels were my angels, my six children and all their offspring. They were my children and grandchildren, some going up to heaven and others descending from heaven. They were angels with legs not wings. And all of them belonged to both worlds, heaven and earth, idealism and the practicalities of everyday life. And all of them at different stages of their lives were traveling in one direction or the other, sometimes towards aspirations, at other times to more practical concerns – getting an education, finding a partner, earning an income, finding a house. But every one of them was involved in both to different degrees at different times. Children and grandchildren traipsing up and down are the gateway to heaven. The abode of God is within the family, in having a place for that family and in having children. That is where God lives among humans. The gate of heaven is on the ground where it meets earth, not at the top of the ladder. It is the place where a frightened fugitive, a refugee from his own home, has to swap the comforts of that home for a stone as a pillow.
This is perhaps a mundane rather than esoteric interpretation, different but akin to Rashi’s, but it made total sense to me. Further, I understood not only the dream, but the meaning of the story that followed in a way I had not understood before.
The story that follows is straightforward and virtually everyone knows it. At the well, Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s daughter, who is shapely and beautiful. Jacob works for Laban seven years to win her as his wife. But Laban tricks him and sends in Leah, the older daughter, into his marriage bed, just as Rebekah once sent Jacob into Isaac to get the blessing ostensibly intended for Esau. To win the beautiful Rachel’s hand, Jacob has to work another seven years. But he has worked fourteen years for no material benefit and has only wives and children to show for it. (More on that in a minute.) So he makes a deal with the very tricky Laban. By then, Jacob had 11 sons and one daughter, 6 sons by Leah, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (Levi and Judah constituting the priestly and political/military class of the House of Israel and Judah), Issachar, Zebulun, the latter two and a daughter, Dinah, only born after Leah uses a mandrake to get Jacob once again to make love to her. Rachel is the one who willingly gives her place in bed to Leah for the mandrake root that Reuben, Leah’s eldest, had found and collected and which allows her at last to bear the first of her two sons, Joseph. As Jacob once traded a hot pot of soup to Esau for his birthright, Rachel now trades her place in bed for a right to give birth.
Jacob then turns the tables on Laban by learning, via the lessons of his mother, Rebekah, and also his wife, that if you are to gain anything on this earth in terms of wealth, you have to be wily, though not dishonest. He tells Laban not to give him wages, but to give him “every speckled and spotted animal – every dark-coloured sheep and every spotted and speckled goat – as his wages. Such shall be my wages. In the future when you go over my wages, let my honesty toward you testify for me: if there are among my goats any that are not speckled or spotted or any sheep that are not dark-coloured, they got there by theft.” (Genesis 28: 32- 34) Laban then tricks Jacob once again by having his sons remove the spotted and speckled and mottled animals. But Jacob is by now onto Laban and turns the tables by breeding spotted, speckled and mottled goats and sheep, leaving the feebler uniformly coloured animals for Laban. Before Jacob’s time was up and he had served another six years, Jacob snuck away with his wives, his concubines and his servants, just as Laban had snuck away and left his sons to steal away the spotted, mottled and speckled members of the flock when he first made his deal with Jacob.
There is one more tale of trickery. Rachel steals her father’s household idols. When Laban chases Jacob in flight with all his animals and household staff and catches them in what is today Jordan, the hill country of Gilead, he is warned by God not to begin a conflict because God is there to protect Jacob. Laban changes his mind in his intention to wrest what he considers his animals back from Jacob. Laban says that he only chased Jacob and his family because Jacob did not allow Laban to send them off with a proper goodbye.
However, when Laban demands the return of his household idols from Jacob, who never knew that Rachel stole them, Rachel sits on them hidden under a camel pillow and claims she is sitting on her pillow because she is having her period (with the implication that she is unclean). Jacob then turns the tables a second time and ends his role as a supplicant. He remonstrates Laban for his false accusations, for his trickery, for his deviousness and cheating Jacob of all he deserved over the past two decades.
Laban then says: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31: 43-44) The real wealth Laban had lost was not the sheep and the goats, but the love of his daughters and his grandchildren. Laban made a pact of peace with Jacob. And we have been taught that the real wealth of life is the children who climb up and down the ladders between idealism and practicality. So when Jacob leaves the camp to finally head home, he once again sees angels and Jacob recognized that where he had made that compact was God’s camp and he named it Mahanaim, just east of either the Jordan River or the Jabbok River.
Was it named “two camps” because the place represented the location where the two camps of Laban, the wily trickster greedy for wealth, and Jacob, who took twenty years to master the ways of the world, finally made peace? Or was it named two camps because the place represented the site where the camp of God met the camp of Jacob. I believe the name was given because it was the place where the camps of idealism and the camp of realism, the camp of striving for perfection and the camp of necessary guile, first met and agreed that Israel was to be founded on the complementarity of both rather than exclusion of one by the other. Instead of wisdom and judgement as the perfect balance between reason and compassion, the balancing act requires hard-headed strategic thinking married to ideals. The balance is not an equilibrium constant but is constantly shifting and requires us to shift with the requirements of a situation. Steps and rungs are not stages but mechanisms for going down as well as up, and going down is often a virtue.
Christians often cite the passage in John (1:45-51) where Jacob’s dream is cited and interpreted and where Jesus greets Nathaniel and says, “Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.” The response from Jews must be, “A human with guile is not without ideals, but he has gotten rid of his naïveté that in all others who are less ‘pure’ becomes the root of hypocrisy.” We must travel back and forth on a highway between Haran and our homeland, between realpolitik and idealism. Jews do not need a leap of faith to accept inherently contradictory positions. Nor do they require steps or rungs or stages to reach a higher level. Jacob acquires that wisdom through experience in the rough and tumble of life.
I regard the view of Jacob as someone who seeks to overtake Esau as mistaken. He needs to hang onto Esau until he can cope on his own because he is a naïve dreamer. His first effort gets him an empty birthright without any guarantees. His second effort guided by Rebekah only gets him a blessing which promises only wealth. In his subsequent efforts, he is the one who is tricked until he learns to turn the trick on the one taking advantage of him. Jacob is akov, indirect, not because he is a deceiver, but because he has not yet found his way. When that route is completed, he will become and be renamed Israel