Jacob’s Dream

In summer 2015, Karina and I went to the Berkshires for summer vacation to see former congregants of mine from Tucson. Their summer home was in Becket, named after Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. We were excited to see our friends, as well as Tanglewood, the Clark Museum of Art and the many other attractions the Berkshires have to offer. Our first night we went to a dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket as part of the Summer Dance Festival.

I thought ‘Jacob’s Pillow? That’s an odd name for a place.’ After all, Jacob’s pillow was a stone when he was a despairing refugee, on the run from his brother Esau, an outcast in an unknown place in the desert, somewhere between Beersheva and Haran. However, with the stone under his head, Jacob had the most incredible dream. It begins והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאי אלקים עולים ויורדים בו: “Behold! A stairway was on the ground and its top reached heavenward and behold! The angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it.”[1]

What’s even more remarkable is how the dream continued. G-d introduced Himself to Jacob as the G-d of Abraham and the G-d of Isaac. G-d demarcated the ground on which Jacob is lying as being for Jacob and for his offspring. G-d stated that Jacob’s descendants shall be כעפר הארץ, as numerous as the dust of the earth[2] and then says the line now famous in a song: ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפונה ונגבה, “you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.”  Jacob received the same blessing as Abraham did: ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, “and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”[3] Even though Jacob is now “on the run” and leaving the Promised Land, G-d is assuring him that he will be brought back to Israel and will be protected by G-d throughout his perilous journey.

What is really going on here? Our sages teach that the dream is a metaphor. Ibn Ezra writes in the words of Shlomo the Spaniard: סלם רמז לנשמה העליונה, “the stairway is an allusion to the upper soul” and that the angels are מחשבות החכמה, the deep thoughts of wisdom that Jacob has had. In other words, this is not really a dream of angels going up and down a ladder but rather Jacob’s spiritual ascent in acquiring divine wisdom. Rabbi Yeshua states that the ascent on the סלם is Jacob’s prayers going up to heaven and the descent is ישועה, salvation or providence, descending from G-d down to him.[4] If that’s not figurative enough, let’s examine Baal HaTurim’s take. Through gematria, he derived the numeric value for the word סולם to be 136 which he states, among other things, is the same numeric value as the word קול or “voice.” He references the Zohar, asserting that the voice of the צדיקים, or ‘righteous ones,’ is the סולם, the stairway by which the angels ascend.[5]

A final popular take on the stairway, found in Ephraim of Lunshitz’s Kli Yakar, is that it references the sacrifices that were offered in Temple times. He referenced Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, proclaiming that the סלם is a כבש, or lamb, and that מצב ארצה, inclined upwards, references the מזבח, or altar, where sacrifices go straight to heaven. The sacrifices, or קורבנות, are intended to draw us closer (קרוב) to G-d, the same way that prayer functions in our synagogue. Jacob immediately strove to get closer to G-d, as the first thing he did upon rising was use the stone that was his pillow as a pillar on which he anointed with oil, demonstrating his commitment to a close relationship with G-d. That very site is called Beth-El, a city in the West Bank (and at one point the most popular name for Conservative synagogues in the United States.)

What do we learn from Jacob’s dream that we can apply to our lives? In my mind it’s simple: G-d speaks to us through numerous mediums, dreams being a central one of them. The Talmud teaches us that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy,[6] that G-d is communicating to us important lessons through our dreams. We should strive to get closer to G-d through remembering and understanding the messages inherent in our dreams, or if you’re like me and struggle to remember your dreams, through our intuition, or inner voice. G-d is constantly communicating with us, like G-d communicated with Jacob; if only we paid closer attention and were continually aware of the daily signs that G-d is showing us. As Rabbi Naomi Levy says in her book Einstein and the Rabbi “What if we were G-d’s dream?” G-d might be showing us that the pillows of our lives, which at times feel insignificant or interchangeable, might actually be nonnegotiable pillars.  May we take after Jacob’s example, striving to get closer to Hashem and to our life’s mission wherever we are at this particular moment in our lives.

[1] Genesis 28:12

[2] A little different than the promise made to Abraham, who was told “Look toward the heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them…such shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5)

[3] Genesis 12:3, Genesis 28:14

[4] Ibn Ezra Genesis 28:12 ד”ה סלם

[5] Baal HaTurim Genesis 28:12  ד”ה סולם referencing Zohar 1:166 (ח”א רסו)

[6] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 57b


How Do You Curry Favor with Others?

Some say that the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That appears to be the case in Parshat Toldot. We learn early on in the parsha that “Isaac loved Esau כי ציד בפיו but Rebecca loved Jacob.”[1] How do we translate the phrase כי ציד בפיו? Literally it means “for game in his mouth.” Did Isaac specifically love Esau because he brought him game (because he had a full belly) or is there more to Isaac’s love?

Commentators love to argue that Isaac’s love was conditional-that when the game disappeared, the love vanished as well. Kli Yakar stated this succinctly: בטל דבר בטל אהבה, once the matter (the meat) was gone, the love was gone.[2] Rebecca, on the other hand, loved Jacob unconditionally, as there is no clause explaining why she loved him. We have cause to pause, however, when we begin the following verse: ויזד יעקב נזיד, “Jacob cooked porridge.”[3] Or HaChaim, Rabbi Haim ibn Attar, felt it is too coincidental that Jacob is cooking after the Torah taught us that Isaac loved Esau on account of the game he brought. He wrote שראה שהועלה לגימתו של עשו ליצחק, לקח גם הוא דרך לבשל תבשילין לקרב לב אביו אליו כעשו, “as Jacob saw that Esau’s mouthful had its effect on Isaac, he too took up cooking dishes as a means to draw his father’s heart towards him, as Esau had done.”[4] In other words, Jacob saw that Isaac’s favor was curried through his stomach, and he attempted to do the same. He wanted the same love from his father that brother Esau received.

We further see the resonance of this interpretation when we look towards the end of our parsha. We learn in Chapter 27 that Isaac says to Esau “Take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out into the field and hunt me game. Then prepare a tasty dish for me like I love and bring it to me and I will eat it in order to bless you before I die.”[5] You don’t get much more explicit than that: hunt and prepare for me food בעבור (in order) for me to bless you. After a meal, when I am satisfied and strengthened, I will be able to give you a blessing.

All of this is well and good, yet Rashi cites two reasons as to why Esau curried favor with Jacob. The first is this literal interpretation that Esau gave him food. The second, however, from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah,[6] is that he would entrap him, and trick him with the words in his (Esau’s) mouth.[7]  The word ציד does mean game, or “hunted food,” as mentioned previously but it also means to entrap or ensnare, as that is how one catches the game. According to this Midrash, Esau is the predator and Isaac is the prey; Esau is manipulating Isaac and ensnaring him through false sycophancy. In this line of thought Isaac goes blind because he accepted “bribes” from Esau. Because Isaac allowed himself to become dependent upon Esau for food and support, he ignored Esau’s sinful behavior. As a result, G-d punished Isaac by making him blind and therefore further dependent on others.[8]

This leaves us with an essential question: is it better to curry favor through one’s actions (hunting game) or one’s words (flattery)? Whichever one you choose will put you in a different place in your life and will leave you with a completely different impression of Esau: either he is nothing more than a rugged hunter and provider or he is a shrewd operator, knowing precisely why he is bringing the game. Like Esau and Jacob, each of us wants to be favored; each of us wants to receive the great blessing. What is the best way for us to do so?

We know the end of this particular saga: Esau the hunter, the manipulator, was outplayed by his mother Rebecca. He wound up without the blessing he wanted and threatened to kill his brother Jacob. What can we learn from this story to avoid this happening in our own families? How can we ensure that there is more than one blessing, more than one right way for the story to unfold? This situation is so parallel to ours: each of us wants to be favored, to feel that we are blessed, whether in our job, in our relationships or in seeing the decisions that other loved ones make which impact us. How can we do so while avoiding the rift that we experience at the end of this week’s reading?

There is no easy answer to this-only questions to ponder as we continue with our services.

[1] Genesis 25:28

[2] Kli Yakar Genesis 25:28 ד”ה ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו

[3] Genesis 25:29

[4] Or HaChaim Genesis 25:29 ד”ה ויזד יעקב. Translation from Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature.

[5] Genesis 27:3-4

[6] Bereshit Rabbah 63:10

[7] Rashi on Genesis 25:28 ד”ה בפיו

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 64. Found in Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah, Genesis 25:28 ד”ה כי ציד בפיו