Jacob’s Dreams – Part II

Jacob’s Dreams – Part II


Howard Adelman

Before I begin my interpretation of Jacob’s two experiences with the divine referred to in my last blog, I want to introduce a third dream of Jacob’s that he had between the two already described, the first when he left his father’s house on route to his uncle’s, and the second upon his return and prior to his encounter once again with his brother Esau.

י וַיְהִי, בְּעֵת יַחֵם הַצֹּאן, וָאֶשָּׂא עֵינַי וָאֵרֶא, בַּחֲלוֹם; וְהִנֵּה הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל-הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים. 10 And it came to pass at the time that the flock conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the he-goats which leaped upon the flock were streaked, speckled, and grizzled.
יא וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּחֲלוֹם–יַעֲקֹב; וָאֹמַר, הִנֵּנִי. 11 And the angel of God said unto me in the dream: Jacob; and I said: Here am I.
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, שָׂא-נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כָּל-הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל-הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים, וּבְרֻדִּים: כִּי רָאִיתִי, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ. 12 And he said: Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are streaked, speckled, and grizzled; for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee.
יג אָנֹכִי הָאֵל, בֵּית-אֵל, אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה, אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר; עַתָּה, קוּם צֵא מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְשׁוּב, אֶל-אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ. 13 I am the God of Beth-el, where thou didst anoint a pillar, where thou didst vow a vow unto Me. Now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity.’
Prior to the telling of this dream, Laban’s sons, the brothers-in-law of Jacob, were jealous at the wealth that Jacob had accumulated and were “kvetching” that what Jacob had, rightfully belonged to their father and should be part of their inheritance. Further, Laban’s attitude had also shifted; presumably, he was no longer as trusting of Jacob. At this time, Jacob received the message from his God instructing him to return “to the land of your fathers where you were born.” (verse 3) God promises that he will be with Jacob on the return journey and in the dream, also seems to justify Jacob’s taking ALL the sheep in his care, not just the speckled and the streaked, but the mottled as well.

Jacob then meets with Leah and Rachel, explains his misgivings about the changed attitude in Laban’s household and, then seemingly in contradiction of a claim of change, says that their father has always cheated him, changing his wages time and again. First he was promised that he could keep all the speckled sheep. But when all the baby sheep were speckled, Laban changed gears and said that Jacob could keep all the streaked young. Then all the newly born were streaked. As Jacob interpreted it, God meant him to have all of Laban’s newly born. The meaning of the plain text seems clear enough and Jacob interprets the dream as one of entitlement.

Both Leah and Rachel reinforce Jacob’s interpretation and believe that it is now time to leave the land of Laban and head to Jacob’s home. “Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing, and fled with all that he had.” (Genesis 31; 20-21) When Jacob had a two-day lead, Laban discovered that Jacob had fled. For seven days, with all his kinsmen, Laban rode after Jacob. Then Laban had a dream in which God warned him not to do anything either good or bad to Jacob. And when Laban met up with Jacob, Laban did not remonstrate him for taking al the sheep, but for leaving without a proper good-bye. Though Laban had the power to hurt Jacob, Laban told Jacob of his dream, but then asked Jacob why he stole his (Laban’s) idols.

Jacob explained that he fled lest Laban not allow his daughters to go, but swore he never took the idols and promised, not knowing that Rachel had stolen them, that, “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” Rachel gets away without Laban finding the idols because Rachel was sitting on them and requested that she not have to stand up because she was in her menstruation period. Rabbinical commentators often argue that Rachel died in childbirth with Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, because of Jacob’s reckless promise that the one found with the idols would not “remain alive.”

Though this would make the Hebrew text akin to a Greek tragedy, it does not quite fit. For Jacob had said that if a person had Laban’s gods, that person would die. Laban did not find anyone with his gods. Further, why would God punish Rachel for stealing idols? There is a possible reason she was punished – because Rachel believed that Laban was empowered by those gods, and she wanted to take away his power. God perhaps punished Rachel for still believing that the idols had power. But perhaps Rachel did not believe this, but simply that Laban believed it; Rachel considered it important that her father not have such a crutch to lean on lest he should attack Jacob. But even this is an exemplification of a lack of trust in God who had promised that He would take care of Jacob. So the punishment was probably not because she stole the idols and not even because she believed the idols had powers, but because she did not have enough trust in God’s power and His promise of protection. Rachel, a much more becoming character than Jacob, is nevertheless a foil to Jacob’s superiority on the spiritual plain.

I turn now to Jacob’s three dreams or encounters with the divine. All three reinforce a specific characterization of Jacob, a characterization established when Jacob first got Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of porridge. In all three tales, Jacob comes across as a gutsy guy with lots of chutzpah. It is not as if he started out bold as brass and then matured. He always seemed willing to play high stakes poker with a determination to win. Secondly, in all three cases, when he fled from Esau, when he fled from Laban twenty years later and when he anticipated his meeting with Esau once again after all those years, he is unequivocally frightened.

…הִנֵּה עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ מִתְנַחֵם לְךָ לְהָרְגֶךָ: וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי חָרָנָה: וְיָשַׁבְתָּ עִמּוֹ יָמִים אֲחָדִים עַד אֲשֶׁר תָּשׁוּב חֲמַת אָחִיךָ: עַד שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ וְשָׁכַח אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ וְשָׁלַחְתִּי וּלְקַחְתִּיךָ מִשָּׁם: “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. 43Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. 44Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides— 45until your brother’s anger against you subsides—and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there.”

So, although he is gutsy, he is not fearless. Thirdly, in all three encounters, he carries with him a sense of entitlement, to Esau’s blessing, then to Laban’s sheep, and, finally, to all that he had accumulated when he was away. Finally, all three occasions are marked by splits – with Esau first, with Laban and then with Esau once again even though Esau was overjoyed at the reunion. Jacob was not a trusting guy. And he was justified in the case of Laban but not in the case of his brother.

However, look at the differences in the three occasions:

Event Ladder Dream Sheep Dream Wrestling “Dream”

Divinities Angels up and down Angel of God An “angel” as another man
addresses Jacob
Status & Location God beside & Angel is God God = Angel = Man
of Deities & addresses Jacob addresses Jacob
Relationship No contact Side by side Intertwined
God’s vows Protection Material wealth Pronounced that Jacob
Progeny Blessing had prevailed
Progeny Blessing Promise of Return
Letting Go God tells Jacob to Go and return to Jacob refuses to
let go of clinging to home home to let God-Man go
Consequence Travel into the unknown Travel home with Blessing – a divine one
wealth – his own and authentically his

Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had promised him that he could return home in reasonably short order (certainly not twenty years) when Esau’s anger subsided. She promised to fetch Jacob. Though Rebekah presses him to leave, it is God who says he should return. In the first, the Torah says that Jacob slept. In the second, he also slept. But in the third, Jacob stayed up all night fighting. In the first, the spatial imagery is vertical with angels running up and down a staircase. By the third, the “man” appears beside him as a stranger who turns out to be God.

In all three cases, in spite of the radical differences between the encounters, Jacob is fearful. In all three cases, he was left alone with only himself for company. In each case, a vision or a man appears. And on each occasion, he comes away from each of these experiences as a different man, but different in distinctly alternative ways. In the first, his fear and insecurities are replaced by confidence – he so clearly was not a confident self-assured man prior to the dream. Before he went to sleep, Jacob did not know God dwelt where he slept. Afterwards he did. He was awestruck. Further, he saw the place as holy, as a gateway to heaven, and literally as a gateway to heaven on earth for God stood beside him and promised him – the thief who stole the blessing – that he would inherit the land all around where he had slept, he and his descendants, and God would be with him and protect him “and bring you back to this land”, never leaving him until he delivered on his promise.

On the first occasion, what was Jacob’s vow? It was a conditional one. “If God remains with me,” if God delivers on his promise, if he is his literal saviour, then “the lord shall be my God.” In the third encounter, there is no clear recognition of the person who stands beside him. Only later does Jacob conclude that he had wrestled with God. Further, instead of being given a promise of protection, he is reborn, not because he learned to have unconditional faith in God, not because God had delivered on His promises, but because his life had been preserved because he, Jacob, had prevailed. Jacob had become an independent agent in his own right prepared to face Esau once again using the wile he had already put in place, but no longer full of fear and trembling.

I suggest that the story is not about the progression from rash and confident immaturity to a more doubtful mature adult, but a religious trip in which Jacob moves closer and closer to God until the two become intertwined and Jacob learns that he must let go of God and not cling to God for protection and material goodies. Rather, what he stole before the first story – his father’s blessing – he now earns back on his own and it is the Lord’s blessing. A birthright is what one gets based on a natural order of birth. But a blessing is earned, in Jacob’s case, first by deceit, and later by deceit dressed up as Machiavellian calculation for self-preservation.

It is this spiritual development, the descent of God onto earth and Jacob’s recognition that he is imbibed with the divine spirit, that is the thread running through the three encounters.


Ki Tisa Exodus Chapter 30:11 – 34:

A Murderous God Committed to Ethnic Cleansing


Howard Adelman

This week’s portion of the Torah goes from the mundane to the absurd. After describing a method of taking a census while also raising money, and then the appointment of two architects and the instructions for completing the Mishkan, we encounter the infamous story of the Golden Calf. When Moses sees the wanton state of his tribe worshipping an idol when he was late coming down from Mount Sinai, he breaks the tablets, kills 3000 men, and then receives a new copy of the tablets. I want to explore the targeted slaughter of 3000 men without due process or proof of their wrongdoing. I will then ask why God subsequently insisted on ethnic cleansing? My focus will be on these two actions.

TNK Exodus 32:26

26 Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, "Whoever is for the LORD, come here!" And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 He said to them, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin."

28 The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.

29 And Moses said, "Dedicate yourselves to the LORD this day — for each of you has been against son and brother — that He may bestow a blessing upon you today."

30 The next day Moses said to the people, "You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the LORD; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin."

31 Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold.

32 Now, if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!"

33 But the LORD said to Moses, "He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from My record.

34 Go now, lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall go before you. But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins."

35 Then the LORD sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.

Chapter 33

TNK Exodus 33:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring will I give it’ —

2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites —

3 a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way."

15 And he said to Him, "Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.

16 For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?"

17 And the LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name."

18 He said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!"

19 And He answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.

20 But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live."

21 And the LORD said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock

22 and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.

23 Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Chapter 34

11 Observe thou that which I am commanding thee this day; behold, I am driving out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.

12 Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst.

The Slaughter of the Three Thousand

The cold blooded murder of the same number of innocent civilians in the Twin Towers by al Qaeda provoked two wars and a radical transformation in America and the world. Making the golden calf and the consequent orgiastic licentiousness of the Israelites in the desert provoked a crisis of leadership and the murder of the 3000. Moshe David Herr, a professor at Hebrew University, wrote a commentary on this section of the Torah, and interpreted it as a paeon to great leadership. (http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/parshaeng/ki-tissa2.php) In his account, even though Moses was the younger brother and a stutterer, Moses proved to be a great leader because he assumed responsibility and took decisive action. Aaron, by contrast, was an appeaser and compromiser who tried to indulge populist cries to still the uncertainties of the Israelites by first stalling and temporizing (32:1), then indulging their fears, but lost control and never confronted the masses when they fell back on a form of depraved idolatry.

Moses is a stark contrast in leadership styles. God tells Moses what had happened in his absence, of the orgiastic backsliding of the nation God had chosen and rescued from slavery in Egypt, and threatens to consume the people with His divine wrath. "Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them." (32:10) While Aaron was unable to stop the passions of the people, Moses confronts God. Do you want, Moses says, the Egyptians to say all your efforts were for naught? God just brought forth evil from Egypt and ended up having to exterminate them all. Moses says to God, "Turn thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people." (32:12) Besides, You made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Having forestalled God’s hand, Moses takes the matter into his own. He goes down from the mountain carrying the two tablets of the divinely inscribed laws and directly confronts the vision of his people’s orgiastic dancing and behaviour around the golden calf. Moses blew his stack, No cool Obama there. Moses was so furious he even broke the two tablets which were the work of and inscribed by God. These were not just inspired documents but sacred extensions of God Himself and the basis of the rule of law. What is worse – engaging in some hedonistic idol worship or physically breaking what God hath wrought and, if that were not enough, after burning the golden calf, mixing its ashes and forcing his own people to drink the foul mixture? Moses gathers his loyal Levites orders them into the camp to "slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour." (32:27) No trial! No due process! Just mayhem and vengeful murder!

Moses then goes back to God and asks God to forgive the people even if it means he, Moses, will be wiped out of the history books and left without a legacy. (32:32) God’s reply? He kills all the sinners. (32:35) In taking the law into his own hands, in killing 3000, likely the top and mid-level leadership of the hedonistic idolatrous movement, God’s wrath was not stilled. Moses had failed to save the sinners but did save the remnant of the people and God’s promise to make them a mighty people and deliver them to the promised land.

For Professor Herr, Moses is the exemplary leader. He decides. He acts. He does not delegate but takes personal responsibility and initiates each action in turn. He is bold and daring and does not mumble excuses. He takes painful and unpopular decisions. "This is a characteristic of a superb leader, and such was Moses. A true leader is someone who makes decisions based on careful consideration, and who always keeps in mind the needs of the public and what is good for them. Not only is his own good not a priority, he is even willing if necessary to sacrifice his own life for the public. Thus, it is clear why Moses was chosen to lead G-d’s people." If that was the case, one might say the same thing of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

Decisiveness, yes! Based on careful consideration, no! Moses is just enraged. Where is there any sign that he is governed by the people’s needs? All the ones who strayed from God’s chosen path were either killed by Moses (presumably the 3,000 leaders) or by God. Why is a leader great because he decides what is good for others? Abraham Lincoln was a great leader because he did what the law and what justice demanded and not what he preferred. The Torah becomes hagiography if one simply takes what is described and assumes that we are being offered an ideal example of behaviour.

Let me offer an example of a different type of leader, one who is not dictated by his rages but by cool reasoning, one who does not despise the people as sinners but respects and empowers them, that forms networks of connection with and among them rather than relying on a praetorian guard to enforce his authority. All leaders reveal their true colours in times of crises. Moses, whatever his great abilities in rescuing the Israelites from Egypt, is a failure as a transformative leader, and, though partially successful, is a failure in his ability to forestall God’s wrath, and in his failure to ensure that the people can be responsible without his tyrannical presence. Moses’ dictates came from on high and not through mobilization and inspiration of the people to take responsibility for themselves. Moses never reflects and understands that his own style of leadership may be responsible for the Israelites wanting a substitute idol in his absence. Moses had led by the cult of personality and not the cultivation of reflection, deliberation and responsible collective decision-making.

But that would require making tolerance a central feature of a leadership style – understanding and reconciling differences and not trying to get everyone to toe the party line. But intolerance was the state of development of the divine spirit at that time and Moses was Its reflection. God sent an angel to guide the Israelites because He did not want to be contaminated by the Israelites who had a proneness to fall into sin. In order to ensure that purity, he claimed to cleanse Canaan of the other non-monotheistic tribes

If Moses had been a great leader in the desert, then the minorities the Israelites faced en route to the promised land – the Canaanite and the Amorite, the Hittite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite – would not have had to be ethnically cleansed without any evidence they did anything wrong. Feared that they would be a fifth column, intolerant of their ways and multi-gods, the Israelites had to find a scapegoat for their own failings. The Israelites themselves, indeed Moses himself, would have had to take responsibility for the Israelites’ resort to hedonistic idolatry.

Though Moses confronted God over his intention to kill all the Israelites and had the sentence reduced to target just the sinners other than the 3000 Moses and his Praetorian guard killed, Moses never challenged God over God’s jealousy, intolerance and wrath. To be a great leader, one must come face to face with God and even confront God’s evil. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face was radiant and he had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-34), was that because it radiated the reflected glory of being in God’s presence as is generally interpreted and believed, or was Moses red-faced, beet red and embarrassed, shame-faced at his failure?

My daughter, Rachel, and I have opposites takes on this passage and, more generally, on the interpretation of the story of the Golden Calf. She has written a shiur entitled "The Radiance of Moshe’s Face," and begins with a quote by Rav Nahman. "When the student receives his teacher’s wisdom, he ‘receives his face’. For this reason, he should look into his teacher’s face as he receives his wisdom, as it is written: "And your eyes shall see your teacher." (Isaiah 3) This makes the student passive in relationship to the teacher and a reflection of the teacher’s glory. Your eyes should see your teacher and be willing to look into and through them. A student should look into a teacher’s face and be willing to confront him, and even confront Him on pain of death. Failure to do so will doom you to inadequacy as a student no matter how great your achievements may be. One does not learn best in passive reflected glory; one learns by discovering the shortcomings of the Other and confronting that Other face to face. A great teacher, which God had yet to become, will not hide his face behind his glory.

Ki Tisa.Exodus.