Jacob`s Dream

Bar-Ilan University
Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Va-Yetze 5771/ November 13, 2010
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan,
Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish
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comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il
Jacob’s Dream
Mordechai Amit
Kibbutz Sa'ad
Jacob’s famous dream about the ladder upon which angels alighted and descended is
described in only four verses (Gen. 28:12-15). These can be evenly split into two
parts. In the first two verses, 12-13, three symbols require interpretation: the
stairway (or ladder), the Lord who was standing over it, and angels of G-d going up
and down. The second part (verses 13-15) contains three blessings that the Lord gave
Jacob. The obvious question is the connection between the two parts. Our
assumption is that they are related as a parable or allegory is to that which it
describes, the symbols in the first part being understood in terms of the blessings in
the second. We make this assumption for two reasons:
1. The connection between the two sections comes in the middle of verse 13,
where the symbols and the blessings come together in the middle of the verse,
attesting to their close relation: "And the Lord was standing beside him (or: on
top of the ladder) and He said."
2. Each symbol begins with the allusive Hebrew word ve-hinneh (=behold)1 and
this word also appears before the last blessing, even though it seems
superfluous there. Perhaps the function of ve-hinneh is to hint that the
blessings provide the clue to interpreting the symbols.
Symbolic meaning
Many interpretations have been given for these three symbols. Most commentators
viewed them as a prophetic parable about the fate of the Israel in the distant future,
scenes of the Temple and sacrificial worship, etc. But these interpretations for the
most have nothing to do with Jacob and the state he was in after leaving home, as
Abarbanel noted:
This expression is not reflected in the English translation. On the extensive us of ve-hinneh in
dreams, compare Gen. 37:7.
There is another reservation applying to them that can hardly be overlooked,
namely that such a vision does not relate to Jacob, who was fleeing from his
brother Esau for fear that he would kill him on account of the blessing his
father had given him; and the vision which he saw had nothing to do with
Abarbanel’s criticism is well taken. This is neither the time nor place to tell Jacob
about what will happen to the people of Israel in the distant future, or to reveal divine
secrets to him. Therefore let us try to interpret the symbols in the light of the
blessings that come after them, with the relationship of a parable to that to which it
1. The stairway stands on the ground and its top reaches the sky. The
word sullam (=stairway) occurs nowhere else in the Bible. The dagesh
in the letter lamed indicates that the root of this word is apparently s-l-l
(= to pave, lay with stone). So it seems we should interpret this word
as an extremely high ascent built of rocks. The first object of the
parable speaks of the land that will be given Jacob and his offspring. If
so, the stairway must symbolize it. Also consider its being linked to
the ground (eretz, also = land), a word which appears in both parts.
The stairway reaches heavenward, perhaps reminding us thematically
of the verse, “It is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after, on
which the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning
to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12). In other words, Jacob is promised a land
capable of maintaining agriculture and earthly existence, but his sons
will be able to reach spiritual heights only if they satisfy the conditions
that the Lord stipulates for them.
2. Angels of G-d going up and down. Since the blessing speaks of
Jacob’s progeny, we suggest that “angels of G-d” symbolize the people
of Israel. This might seem a far-fetched and strange interpretation, but
only if one considers the Hebrew mal’achim as angels. If we consider
the original meaning of this word, namely messengers, as in the verse,
“Jacob sent messengers ahead” (Gen. 32:4), then this presents no
difficulty: human beings can be messengers. Regarding the mission of
the people of Israel, the Lord says (Gen. 18:18-19): “Abraham is to
become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are
to bless themselves by him. For I have singled him out, that he may
instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by
doing what is just and right.”
Jewish sources can help us, if only slightly, in identifying the messengers with
the children of Israel. Exodus Rabbah 42, 3 reads:
I told their elder (Father Jacob): “and angels of G-d were going up and
down on it (Gen.28:12, Heb. bo).” What is meant by "on it" ( bo)?
Thus I told him: when in the future your children shall be righteous,
they shall go up in the world and rise, and their emissaries shall rise
with them; but when they sin, they and their emissaries go down, as it
says, "Get thee down" (Ex.32:7).3
This homily is not identical to our interpretation, but it identifies the
messengers in Jacob’s dream, called angels, with the children of Israel [ed.
Abarbanel's comment on Gen. 28:12, the first after his summary of interpretations of the dream.
Perhaps the word bo was thought to be superfluous and therefore explained as "by means of:" the
leaders of Israel rise up and fall in this world dependent on the fortunes of the people of Israel.
note: perhaps the angels represent the leaders of Israel]. Our interpretation
diverges somewhat from the homily. We associate the word bo “on it” with
the stairway, but one could take the homily to be indicating Moses.
3. And behold, the Lord was standing alav (= on it or over him). On
what or by whom? According to the blessing to which we apply this,
clearly the reference is to the lord standing over Jacob, whom the Lord
promises to protect along his way to Haran and to bring him back to
the land, as Rashi comments (loc. sit.): “Stood over him to protect
Does this dream, as we have interpreted it, suit Jacob’s emotional state? Jacob,
fearing Esau’s revenge, was fleeing from him to a foreign land. Even in Haran no
great things awaited him. He was alone, destitute, in a condition that could lead one
to despair, and the Lord came to him with the consoling words: the land that you are
lying on as a refugee will one day be yours. It will be a land of special qualities. You
are alone? Behold, the Lord is showing you your offspring, represented in the dream
by the angles, who will be capable of reaching great heights if they adhere to what is
required of them. And see how numerous you offspring shall be: like the dust of the
earth. You are afraid of Esau, or perhaps of the future? The Lord will watch over you
wherever you are. We think this message matches Jacob’s emotional state, and the
two parts of the dream impart to each other depth of ideas and emotion.