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

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