When we think of dreamers in the Torah, we may naturally come to think of Joseph and his many dreams — the dreams of an arrogant teenager that set him apart from and above his brothers, which got him into trouble, and also the dreams of the Pharaoh that Joseph was able to decipher and save Egypt from an awful famine. But before Joseph was able to have his own experience as a dreamer, the Torah this week shares his father’s pivotal, life-changing moment that alters his understanding of God and his role in our Torah’s narrative.
If you recall, Jacob is on the run. He had recently stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing from his father. And since Esau has vowed to kill him, Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s house in Haran.
Along the way, he lays his head to rest on some stones and has the following dream:
…a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 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. 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. 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).
What does this dream mean? It baffles me every year that I read it because the Torah never clarifies if his dream was the product of his own subconscious or if it is conveying the nature of reality in which God was providing Jacob some insight into God’s world.
What is clear to me is that Jacob has an “aha moment.” It’s a God shot, and for a brief moment he experiences a personal God, one that protects him, guides him, and assures him of the future, despite whatever poor decisions he’s made in the past. God reassures Jacob that he has a seat at the table of patriarchs and that God is on his side and will be a part of his journey.
Waking from the dream, Jacob is ecstatic: “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).
He goes on to promise that if God fulfills His promise to protect him in his journey, then Jacob will give a tenth of everything he has as an offering in return.
Unfortunately, this moment of awakening is merely fleeting. Jacob promises to do better. To reform. To be honest and not to cheat anymore.
However, instead of turning back and apologizing to his brother and asking forgiveness from his father, he keeps running from the darkness. He’s not ready to face his past. Even after having direct contact with the Divine, it’s still too hard for Jacob to do t’shuvah.
But back to the mysterious dream and its significance: Rabbi David Bodnik, a 20th Century Latvian Mussar master, illuminates an interesting take on the various images in the dream. He writes:
Together with the universal ladder of all of humanity, Jacob saw his own personal ladder – his ascents and his descents… (Gems of Torah, VaYetze)
In other words, despite Jacob’s shortcomings and poor choices, he merited to see a gateway of Divine influx that all of humanity is connected to, in addition to having a vision of his own personal connection with God.
Rabbi Bodnik continues:
And this symbolizes the four points of view that (haadam hashalem) a complete person merits to achieve:
1. To always look at the aspect that is grounded, even when one’s head reaches the heavens.
2. To see that one’s sight is directed to the heavens even when he is grounded.
3. To always see the path of his ascent, even when he also sees his descent.
4. To see points of view that perhaps would shake or shock a simple person, but elevates a complete (shalem) person, because he sees [the viewpoints] from a place of holiness, from a place which is a gateway to heaven (Gems of Torah, VaYetze)
From my understanding, these four points of view shift our simple-minded perspective into a well-rounded, complete individual.
1. Details matter. Don’t think we can only focus on the big vision without knowing the individual parts. We can’t just be in the heavens, seeing the view from 30,000 feet; we must be, at the same moment, grounded and rooted in mundane matters of day-to-day life.
2. Don’t forget to look up! We can’t forget where inspiration comes from. We need to live in wonder and radical amazement. We can’t get bogged down in only material and worldly affairs; we have to have an eye always focused on the spiritual, on the Ineffable, on the mystery of life which is God.
3. Play out the tape. When we play out the tape of our decisions, we can more easily see which path led us to a place of elevation and which path took us down the road we’ve been on too many times. Are we taking a road less traveled – a road paved with faith and partnership with our Higher power? Or are we going down the familiar road to self-destruction?
4. How do we hold the both/and sacred? Can we sit with people who have diametrically opposing views and values and still cherish them and their opinions? Can we see someone else’s Divine connection as sacred, or does it shake us so much that we avoid them all together?
I like the idea that Jacob’s dream provides us all with insight on how to become a more complete version of ourselves. The idea that God’s mysterious, unknowable ways are tethered to us individually, but also attached to us through a universal pathway of love, protection, and grace. I know that in my path to wholeness, I too often try to focus solely on my strengths instead of also working on my growing edges. And… I’m grateful for the journey and for the faith that God will reveal the next step at the appropriate time.
Our task is to continue dreaming and to take the next right action that will turn our vision into reality, one step at a time.