Parshat Vayetze: Genesis 28-10-32:3; Hosea 12:13-14:10.
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.”
Dreams have a unique capacity to inspire us to aim higher, to remain focused on a distant goal even when the present circumstances give us little reason for optimism. But what happens when the gap between dream and reality seems insurmountable? Jacob’s dreams shine a light on this question and offer insights into his evolution as a person, as well as lessons about his descendants’ mission in the world and destiny as a nation.
Jacob begins his journey from his father’s home into exile with the loftiest of dreams: a ladder rooted in the ground while reaching up to the heavens. This symbolizes his and his descendants’ Divine mandate: to unify heaven and Earth so that the Divine Presence can be manifest in the world.
Unfortunately, Jacob’s long sojourn with his father-in-law, Laban, has a corrupting influence on him. To hold his own with his devious employer, Jacob perfects the art of deception; and, in time, the bright nephew even out-Labans his clever uncle, becoming wealthy in his own right.
His new dream after a period in Laban-land: “And I saw in a dream and behold, rams that leapt upon the sheep were speckled, spotted and striped.”
Jacob now dreams of material success devoid of any spiritual component.
He soon receives the life-changing command: “I have seen everything Laban is doing to you … rise, leave this land and return to the land of your birthplace.” In other words, leave the land of obsession with materialism. Return to the land — and to the dream — of your forefathers who walked with God.
Jacob must have been devastated. He must have seen himself as an abject failure; he must have questioned whether he would ever succeed in achieving his original aspirations.
When he leaves Laban’s home, Jacob has a third dream. “And Jacob went on his way and he was met there by angels of God …”
This dream is a parallel to the one that opened the reading. This time, however, there is no ladder, but instead two distinct encampments, family compounds, one outside Israel and the other in Israel.
The message is dramatic: Uniting heaven and Earth requires more than ascending a spiritual ladder. It requires making an impact on the world around us by building a family dedicated to God and Torah in the Land of Israel — and not to materialism as in Laban’s house of exile.
Earth’s mountain tops are that very ladder that connects the human with the Divine, and the Jew to his eternal dream of a united world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.