On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s allegedly very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no indication in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of the above senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is depicted as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by connecting beauty with moral excellence. Nor is the value based on considering women as having different kinds of beauty or only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty. Finally, that beauty and attention to it is not considered by me to be a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Joseph flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. In the Torah, there is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no sense in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of these senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is portrayed as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by an ethical relief of connecting beauty with moral excellence, with considering women as having different kinds of beauty or, even more disruptive, of a woman only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty, and, finally, that beauty and attention to it is a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Jacob flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. There is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

 

Jacob’s Dreams – Part II

Jacob’s Dreams – Part II

by

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.’
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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
birthright

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.

Jacob’s Dreams Part

Jacob’s Encounters with God

by

Howard Adelman

Last shabat in our Torah study group, a visiting rabbi compared a passage from last week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3) to a passage from this week’s portion, Vayishlach, (Genesis 32:4 – 33:17). [The selections are included after my commentary.] His was a comparison of two different encounters with God. The visiting rabbi offered a psychological interpretation of the two events, regarding the second, like the first, as a dream. The first that took place twenty years earlier was the dream of a confident and ambitious young man who had neither experienced the hardships of life nor acquired wives, concubines, children and a great deal of wealth. In the rabbi’s interpretation, in the second episode Jacob is much less inflated, more humble, and even somewhat broken as characterized by the displacement of his hip. He reinforced this interpretation with two poems, one by Naomi Shihab Nye from her volume of selected poems, The Words Under the Words, called “Kindness,” and a second by Mary Oliver called “Mindful,” both also included at the end of this blog.
The context of the first dream is that Jacob, fearing the wrath of his brother for tricking their father into giving him the blessing that belonged to Esau, left Beer-sheba en route to Haram to the home of his uncle, Laban. The sun has set. He lies down and uses a stone for his pillow. He has the famous dream of the ladder or stairway in which angels are going up and down. God appears beside him, introduces Himself, and promises to give to Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is resting. Further, not only does God promise that he, Jacob, would have many progeny, but God makes two other promises: 1) “in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed;” and 2) “behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”

Jacob reacts, surprised that the Lord was present in such an arid place. He views the spot as “the abode of God” and as “the gateway to heaven.” Jacob then vows (Genesis 28: 20-22): “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all Thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.”

In the second encounter in contrast to the first, he is returning. He has been away 20 years, and is again in a state of fear, this time not in flight but in anticipation of a meeting, after all these years of separation. Jacob does not know whether the wrath and its extent are still in Esau’s heart. Things do not look good when he is told that his brother is riding towards him with 400 men. He put in motion his plan to divide his entourage in two. “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Genesis 32:9) Further, the one half would be sent forward in waves, each wave with presents for his brother. “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favour.” (Genesis 32:21) It is clearly not a plan devised by a brave warrior.

Jacob had the ladder dream the first time when he fled just after he had cheated Esau out of his blessing twenty years earlier. This time, Jacob had an experience which the visiting rabbi interpreted as another dream. Jacob was alone and “a man wrestled with him until daybreak, but the man could not get him down so he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket.” (Genesis 32:26) Jacob, suffering from a wrenched hip, still held onto the man who insisted that Jacob let him go because dawn was breaking. Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. The latter did so and said from now on he would not be known as Esau’s heel – Jacob – but as Israel, blessed of God. Jacob reacted and said after the unknown stranger left, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:31)

The visiting rabbi interpreted the text to be about the two different experiences of a man at two different stages of his life, one that of a brash, ambitious and confidant youngster and the second of a much more humble and modest man, injured by life’s struggles and much more grateful at the kindness of others, including that of the Other. After all, in an earlier verse of that chapter, Jacob prayed to God and said, “I am unworthy of all your kindness that you have so steadfastly shown.” (verse 11)

The rabbi then shifted to the two poems. That of Nye’s began:

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.”

The poem continues, describing “how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.” And we learn that this was a poem written about an actual experience when Nye was travelling in a bus in Colombia and the bus was attacked by robbers who stole everything the passengers had and left one Indian dead. He is the one for whom the future dissolved in a moment. To know kindness, you must know sorrow. But you cannot wake up to kindness if you are dead. The sorrow then belongs to others. And they can only know kindness as making sense of all the madness which can then travel with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

If this was an analogy for the Jacob story, presumably the message was that Jacob first is deeply sorrowful when he departs in fright at the loss of his family and when his future belonged to the realm of the unknown. Only with that deep sense of loss can the understanding arise that kindness is what counts. The citation puzzled me as a complement to the second portion. First, as the rabbi said, this was the experience of a girl in her mid-twenties. Secondly, she was encountering a horrible and cruel event. Out of the terrible sorrow with which she was left, and coterminous with it – not twenty years later – came also the sense that kindness made it all worthwhile and was the only thing that made it all worthwhile. That kindness was to be her friend for the rest of her life.

Perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps the citation was intended to illustrate the first biblical passage, specifically where God promises Jacob that he will be with him from now on and will protect him. But Nye’s poem is about kindness, not about protection. It is about something in which one can have faith, not about protection as a condition for that faith. Jacob’s experience was not of the God of mercy but more of the God of power. The busload of people in Colombia could have come through the experience, not by drawing out a thread of faith in kindness, but by recognizing that you need police or even military to protect a bus traveling through an area controlled by land pirates.

The second poem called “Mindful” by Mary Oliver was even more puzzling. Though both poems are about the light that comes through the cracks in the glass, one of kindness during a moment of intense sorrow that then stays with one as a companion for the rest of your life, and one of delight coming periodically when you truly listen, when you truly see, when in an ordinary, not exceptional, experience of a dreadful event, you come to recognize that in the untrimmable light of the world, the oceans shine and the prayers are made out of simple things like really seeing all of life in a single blade of glass. There is no continuity in the experience; it is sporadic. And it is delight, not in an awesome God, but in the tiniest of things of nature if you but attend to them.

Both are beautiful poems. Neither seemed to be about or throw any light on either or both of Jacob’s encounters. Nor was the rabbi’s psychological interpretation that the two “dreams” or encounters were about how one experiences life as a young man versus how one experiences it as an old one. First, depending on how one dates Jacob’s age, he either was already old when he left for Haran, or if he left when he was the equivalent of a twenty-plus-year-old, when he returns, he is a mature adult, not an old man wizened by experience. More to the point, the plain meaning of the text does not seem to be about individual psychology and our personal development.

Quite aside from the interpretation, I have a problem with methodology and have trouble simply with using text as homiletics, as an illustration of a lesson you want to teach. For the Torah is a “sacred” text – as I believe all great literature is. It is not there to be used as illustrative material for one’s personal propensities. This means, at the first level, paying close attention to the plain meaning of the text though there is a certain psychological component to be sure. In the first encounter, Jacob is fleeing the only home he ever knew and is off to seek safety in the house of a relative far away after he cheated his brother of a blessing from their father. In the second encounter, Jacob is about to see his brother once again after twenty years, not knowing whether or not Esau still begrudges what he had done. There is little indication that the text is about maturation.

In addition to objecting to interpreting text in which the meaning given seems implausible, in addition to my discomfort at conjoining that text to two beautiful poems, and very insightful ones, but neither of which really helps us in understanding the text, in addition to my unhappiness at using biblical text simply to illustrate an idea – I do not believe that Torah exist to reinforce subjective sensibilities or even our collective experiences – I find a spiritual disquiet when Torah is not used to provide a guide for understanding both. So I try to abide by the first three of the ancient inherited norms of levels of interpretation summarized by the term PaRDeS:
• Peshat (פְּשָׁט‎) – the literal, surface, plain and direct reading in context
• Remez (רֶמֶז‎) – “hints” at the deep allegoric, hidden or symbolic meaning
• Derash (דְּרַשׁ‎) – “to inquire” based on comparative analysis
• Sod (סוֹד‎) – the “secret,” mysterious or esoteric and mystical meaning.

Tomorrow: My attempt at interpretation

The first relevant verses from Genesis 28 are as follows:

י וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה. 10 And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.
יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. 11 And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.
יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. 12 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.
יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ–לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
יד וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ. 14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’
טז וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’
יז וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה: אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם. 17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
יח וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ. 18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
יט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית-אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם-הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
כ וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב, נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר: אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. 20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי; וְהָיָה יְהוָה לִי, לֵאלֹהִים. 21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God,
כב וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה–יִהְיֶה, בֵּית אֱלֹהִים; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי, עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ. 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’

The second relevant verses are from Genesis 32 as follows:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

Kindness

by

Naomi Shibab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Jacob’s Dream and Jacob’s Children

Parshat Va-yetzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob’s Dreams and Jacob’s Children

by

Howard Adelman

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