reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
God first reveals himself to Jacob, fleeing from his brother and birthplace, wandering at night in the desert, sleeping in the open with a stone for a pillow, through the medium of a dream.
A modern German Jewish commentator, Benno Jacob, in his work on Genesis divides the various dreams occurring in Genesis into one of two categories.
The first class comprise those in which God actually speaks to man (20:3; 31:24), the second class, those dreams through whose medium, God speaks to man. Examples of the latter are the dreams of Joseph, the chief butler, the chief baker and Pharaoh. The second class are usually in form of parables, word pictures which require elucidation.
In Jacob’s dream God actually addresses Jacob. Before that , however, comes the picture which calls for our interpretation. Indeed there have been many attempts at such interpretation.
Let us quote the pictorial part of Jacob’s dream, the interpretation of which has preoccupied so many expositors, writers and poets down the ages:
“And behold a ladder set upon the earth And behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it And behold the Lord stood above it” (28:12, 13)
The following is one of the manifold midrashic interpretations of the dream, occurring in Midrash Tanhuma:
“And behold the angels of God ascending and descending: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Madea, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many! In that hour, Jacob was afraid and said: “Peradventure, this one has no descent?” Said the Holy One blessed be He to him: ‘Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob…neither be dismayed, O Israel’. Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me, thence will I bring him down! As it is stated (Obadiah, 1:4). Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down”, saith the Lord.
Likewise, this Midrash inspired Sforno’s comment on the dream:
“Ascending and descending ;Indeed ultimately, having gained ascendancy, the gentile princes will go down , and the Almighty who forever stands above, will not forsake His people as He promised (Jeremiah 30:11): For I will make a full end of all the nations wither I have scattered you, but I will not make a full end of you.
According to the Midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of nations and their cultures on the arena of world history. What has this to do with Jacob’s situation, his flight to Padan-Aram from the wrath of his brother, his mission to choose a wife and carry on the seed of Abraham and Isaac? In answer, it may be said, that the Midrash regards the dream, not as referring merely to Jacob the individual, but Jacob as the symbol of Israel, the embodiment of the wanderings of the Jewish people, as it is exiled from one country top another and witnesses the rise and fall of mighty kingdoms, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. The author of the Midrash who lived during the period of the Roman Empire had not yet witnessed its decline and fall.
Rome and the spiritual successors that took its place in Europe afterwards are known in Medieval Rabbinic terminology by the name of “;Edom”. Their downfall is likewise foretold. The Jewish people apprehensive at the apparently never-ending reign of the oppressor, seeing no sign of his impending doom, cries “;Peradventure, this one has no descent perhaps he is never going Jacob, the Divine message of reassurance is to be found in the message of Obadiah, the prophet of the ultimate doom of Edom.
Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord. (Obadiah 1:4)
Jacob’s ladder is taken to imply the ladder of history. The ascent of one nation on it implies the descent of its predecessor. The ladder is not an endless one, but the Lord stands at its top, as the master of history, assuring us that pride and despotism will be brought low, until His sovereignty alone is recognized at the end of days. This “Latter-day” vision is described to us by Isaiah (2).
Rashi has however a completely different approach to the text. He sticks to its plain sense. The subject of the narrative is Jacob the Patriarch on his journey to Padan-Aram, in flight from his brother. Rashi has the following question to raise regarding the words: “ascending and descending”:
First the ascend and afterwards descend?
Surely, Rashi queries, the angels, the denizens of the heavens should first have descended; the order should be the reverse. Rashi answers:
The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go outside to the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to Heaven. Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him.
In other words, man’s experiences in his own country are not to be compared with his situation in a strange land. To make his way on foreign soil, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace, amidst familiar land-marks. But wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection.
Rashi’s brief remark fits the picture described in the sidra perfectly. The angels outside the Holy Land accompany Jacob throughout his tribulations, from the moment he leaves Beer-Sheba (28, 10) to his return to Mahanaim (32:3) after spending twenty years in exile. There he is again confronted by angels; the guardian angels of the Homeland:
And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. (33:2)
These experiences are echoed by the Psalmist in reference not to Jacob the Patriarch, but to the descendants of Jacob:
For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. (Psalm 91, 11, 12)