In the dream image of Jacob’s ladder, angelic messengers are coming down and going up. In Torah, characters sometimes interpret dreams metaphorically. Here, however, Yaakov gives no explicit interpretation of his dream. So the nature of the ladder is open to interpretation. Here are just a few representative interpretations from different eras in Jewish history.
From midrash (c. 500): (1) The gematriya of sulam, ladder, is the same as the gematriya of Sinai. The ladder represents the Torah coming from God to the world; the angels are Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. (2) This is the ladder of exile of the Jewish people. All who climb it out of the land of Israel, will eventually come down again to their home.
From late medieval philosophy and mysticism (c. 1200): (1) The ladder is a bridge between body and soul. Our bodies are planted in the ground, but through intellect our souls reach for spiritual connection. (2) The gematriya of hasulam – the ladder — is the same as the gematriya of kol – voice — 136. When we speak our prayers we climb from our earth-bound existence to deeper states of consciousness.
From Chassidut (c. 1800): (1) Our soul has its roots in heaven and descends down the ladder, from its most subtle form as neshamah to its most embodied form as nefesh. (2) The angels going up and down on the ladder represent our consciousness. Sometimes our consciousness expands upwards and sometimes it contracts downwards, but we are always reaching towards God.
What does the image of a ladder reaching heavenward mean to you?
Religion and Spirituality (5774/2013)
It’s possible to define “spirituality” as engagement with direct experience of the holy, and “religion” as an established system for describing and accessing that experience. With these working definitions in mind, the first thirteen verses of Parshat Vayetze lay out clearly some of the tensions between spirituality and religion.
On his way to Charan, Yaakov sleeps with a stone for a pillow. That night, he has a numinous (otherworldly, holy) dream. After he awakes, the powerful dream stays with him and he declares, “God is in this place!” Yaakov takes the stone and erects it as a kind of monument. He names the place “House of God.” Then, he creates his theology, in which God is protector and provider. If God lives up to this description, he says, I will commit to this God.
In just a few moments, Yaakov demonstrates a process that, in real life, can take years. A spiritual teacher receives mystical experiences, then attempts to articulate them. Others wonder how they can find the same insight, and the teacher creates a system of self-development. The system becomes, in a sense, patented, and is offered to others in a controlled fashion, with strict rules for use.
Some people find they can’t attract an experience of God within a religious system. They may have to undo all the steps Yaakov demonstrated. Let go of insisting the system perform for them; name God in their own way; seek God personally, sometimes outside of institutions; be open to the numinous dream or vision and its effects. Many of our Hasidic teachers led the way on this path, certain that the God Jews would find through meditation, nature walking, or self-examination is the same one who appeared in Yaakov’s original dream.
After Ya’akov dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, he vows: If God will be with me, and watch over me on the path I am walking, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and will bring me in peace back to my father’s house, then I will take YHWH as my God. (Gen 28: 20-21)
We know how it turns out: Ya’akov is clothed and fed — as an indentured servant to his father-in-law. He returns home — just in time to bury his father. God watches over him — through love, disappointment, anger, pride, fear, disability, shame and grief. Are Ya’akov’s expectations of God met?
What do you expect from God?
Last year, I asked many people this question. They answered, saying
- I expect nothing.
- I expect everything.
- I expect justice.
- I expect a reliable natural order.
- I expect God to give me strength to deal with life.
- I expect God to recognize me.
- I want to know what God expects of me.
In these answers, I heard so many different senses of who God is.
- The transcendent Other, who may or may not manifest.
- The judge, the one who balances the scales, maybe even in advance.
- The creator, establishing laws of nature.
- The coach.
- The lover.
- The moral teacher.
In the Haftorah paired with Vayetze, the prophet Hoshea assures us that this multiplicity is okay with God. Hoshea quotes God as saying,
“I spoke to the prophets; I multiplied visions; through the hand of the prophets, I am described in metaphor.” (Hoshea 12:11)
How many of these metaphors have spoken to you in your lifetime? How have your expectations evolved?
Shepherds and Sheep (5772/2011)
The metaphor of the Israelites as God’s flock begins in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze. The story of Ya’akov – who later becomes our ancestor Yisrael – is the story of a young sheep in need of guidance.
Two little sheep are born, named Wooly (Esav) and Follower (Ya’akov). Follower is a shepherd’s dream lamb: tam, perfectly formed with no physical imperfections. Wooly, however, is born with wool on his face and legs – only a plus if sheep live outdoors, which is what Wooly does.
When Follower matures, he sets out on his own, so he can find a mate from a neighboring flock, and won’t have to compete with Wooly. At a watering hole, Follower meets a small flock of sheep: two females named Ewe (Rachel) and Wild Mama (Leah), and their father, Whitey (Lavan). Ewe is yefat toar, born, like Follower, with what shepherds call “good conformance.” Wild Mama has a non-fatal birth defect troubling to shepherds: inverted eyelids that cause her eyes to tear a lot.
Over time, Follower becomes a fully mature ram. He decides it’s time to set out on his own with his flock – Ewe, Wild Mama, and their offspring. As he sets out, he smells Wooly in the air and his hormones kick in. Even though he hasn’t seen Wooly, he fights for dominance with a phantom, and wins. He lets go of his birth name, Follower, and calls himself Wrestler Prince (Yisrael).
Eventually, the flock migrates to Egypt to graze in the fertile land of Goshen. They become enslaved, but their shepherd Moshe leads them to freedom across the Red Sea, pointing the way with his shepherd’s staff. Torah says: “600,000 adult males, sheep and cows and a great load of livestock” went together out of Egypt.
Three take-home questions: What does it mean that our ancestors were both shepherd and sheep? What does it mean for our spiritual lives that we are both caretakers and cared-for? What journeys will bring us to know these answers?
Shepherd’s Love (5771/2010)
In Parshat Vayetze, we learn about the young adult lives of our ancestors Ya’akov, Rachel, and Leah. They are immersed in a shepherding culture. Their parents are shepherds, and they are named after sheep. Ya’akov means “Follower,” Rachel means “Ewe,” and Leah means “Wild Mother.” As they mature, they all work in the family business. When Ya’akov first becomes aware of his connection with God, his expectations are drawn from the shepherd-sheep relationship: he asks God to protect him and feed him.
Three levels of care seem to emerge here. When Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah are born, their parents see them as part of the flock under their parental care. As Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah mature, they become caretakers. Over time, they come to recognize that they, too, depend on others. They come to recognize that this care is a gift of God’s grace. All at the same time, they are sheep, cared for by human shepherds; shepherds, who care for their flocks; and sheep cared for by God.
It’s not difficult to understand what it might mean, spiritually, to be both sheep and shepherds. Receiving love is also a call to give love. But what does it mean to speak of a third layer to this seemingly complete cycle? What might it mean to become a sheep relative to the Divine shepherd? Perhaps it hints that the cycle of love is a gateway to spiritual awareness. Many people say they recognize God in their experiences of unconditional love. These experiences may come easily, as part of early family life or they may come as surprises later in life. Either way, their power and presence often sustain us through the most difficult times.
Where do you find the source of your ability to love?
A Place for Rachel and Leah (5770/2009)
“Rachel and Leah answered, saying, is there a place for us in our father’s house?” (Bereisheet/Genesis 31:14)
Should the names of the Imahot (matriarchs of the Jewish people), be included in the first paragraph of the Amidah prayer, along with the names of the Avot (patriarchs)?
(1) We’ve always done it without the Imahot.
(2) Prayers are largely made up of Biblical quotations. Torah often uses the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak and God of Ya’akov,” but not the phrase “God of Sarah, God of Rivkah, God of Rachel, God of Leah.” (3) The traditional version of the first paragraph of the Amidah is a poetic composition of 42 words – the number of words in one of God’s secret names. If we add the Imahot, we lose the spiritual symbolism of 42.
(1) Including the names of the Imahot specifically invites women into the chain of Jewish tradition.
(2) Torah states that each of the Imahot has a personal relationship with God. Sarah receives a spiritual name from God. Rivkah asks God about the future of her children and receives an answer. Leah and Rachel make offerings to God, and address God as they name their children.
(3) In the first paragraph of the Amidah, we seek entry into God’s presence by saying, “God, you knew my ancestors.” As Jewish tradition considers each of the Imahot meritorious, stating their names can only help us get closer to God.
How would you answer Rachel and Leah?
Where are you going? When can you find out? (5768/2007)
Pirkei Avot, a book of foundational principles of Jewish Ethics teaches, “Know where you come from and to where you are going.” (Avot 3:1) In order to gain this deep knowledge of self, we sometimes have to pause between the place we come from and the place we are going.
When our ancestor Ya’akov begins his journey, he knows his external plan. He leaving Be’er Sheva and heading towards Charan, leaving his troubled relationship with his brother and looking to meet his future wife. At the end of the journey’s first day, he pauses – not to reflect consciously, but to go to sleep.
Consciousness comes, whether he wants it to or not! While asleep, Ya’akov dreams about the space between coming and going. He sees a giant ladder between heaven and earth where angels are coming down and going up – and then he sees God standing over him. God explains that Ya’akov’s journey to Charan is part of a long multigenerational family story, and only the first leg of Ya’akov’s life journey. Ya’akov wakes filled with awe at discovering, for the first time, a place between external activities. He exclaims, “God is in this place and I, I did not know it!” He promises that if the dream is a true dream, he will dedicate his life to spiritual service.
Where do you come from and to where you are going? What future do you dream about at night? When and where do you pause so that you can find your answers?
Inspired by Rabbi Mimi Feigelson
“Ya’akov dreamed: a ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven. God’s angels were going up and down on it.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 28:12)
Dreams, says Torah, are key to communication with God. In a dream, Avram learns that his great, great grandchildren will pass through slavery to freedom. Yitzchak is comforted after his father’s death by a dream that God is with him. Ya’akov’s dreams show him that heaven and earth are connected. And God tells Miriam directly, “When someone among you experiences divine prophecy, I speak with them in a dream!” (Bamidbar/Numbers 12:6)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi teaches that dreams are a glimpse into God’s process of creating the world. In the earliest stages of creation, reality consists of undefined seeds with unlimited potential. Each seed might become one thing or another. No logical or scientific rules determine how things change and grow. Torah calls this stage of reality “tohu va’vohu” or chaos. Similarly, in dreams opposites can coexist. Illogical circumstances are logical. Each image is an undefined seed that might become one thing or another.
Dreams remind us that creation was not a one-time event. Just under the surface of our everyday consciousness is the knowledge that the world is filled with potential. Our choices each and every day influence the growth of the seeds of the world. May we wake up from our dreams each morning aware of creation’s newness, ready to use our own creative potential for good!
Inspired by Rabbi Yossi Marchus