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 insurmountably vast? Jacob’s dreams throughout this week’s Torah reading of Vayetze shine a bright light on this question, and offer important 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 with angels ascending and descending upon it. This visual symbolizes his and his descendants’ Divine mandate: even in exile, to unify heaven and earth so that the Divine Presence can be manifest in the world.
Unfortunately, something goes awry along the way, as Jacob’s long sojourn with his father-in-law Laban has a corrupting influence on him. In order 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.
It must be said that Jacob has not completely forgotten the traditions of his youth, despite the distance from his parents’ home: “’With Laban have I dwelt,’ and the 613 commandments have I kept” [Rashi to Gen. 32:5] is what Jacob reports after the ordeal has passed. Although it may be true that, technically speaking, he has remained faithful to his roots, his focus of concentration has become the livestock on earth rather than the stars of the heavens.
Indeed, Laban has certainly corrupted his aspirations. Just look at 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” [ibid., 31:10]. Jacob now dreams of material success devoid of any spiritual component.
It is upon coming to this spiritual nadir that he soon receives the life trajectory-changing command of the Divine messengers: “I have seen everything that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Beit El…now rise, leave this land and return to the land of your birthplace” [ibid., v. 13]. 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!
More than twenty years in the prime of one’s life is a significant period. Jacob must have been devastated when he realized what had become of him and his dreams. He must have seen himself as an abject failure. He must have questioned whether he would ever succeed in achieving his original aspirations. He knows he must leave Laban before it is too late.
When he leaves Laban’s home, with his large family in tow, he has a third dream, even more momentous than those that preceded it: “And Jacob went on his way and he was met there by angels of God…and he called the name of that place Mahanayim [Divine encampments of God’s messengers)” [Gen. 32:2-3].
This dream, which concludes Parshat Vayetze, is a parallel to the one that opened the reading, with Jacob again meeting angels of God. 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 also 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 in Laban’s house of exile.
The fact that Jacob somehow manages to return to Israel – despite the inertia of habit and the comforts of his home in exile – is the reason, I believe, why he is called the ‘chosen among the patriarchs’ [Midrash Rabbah 76:1 to Genesis].
Whereas Abraham obeys the Divine command to come to the land, and Isaac never leaves the land, Jacob, returns to this land despite the sibling conflict that awaited him there.
Did Jacob’s return to Israel mark the end of his difficulties and challenges? Certainly not. And so it is with his descendants. Disappointments and setbacks are inevitable, in a world still divided between the holy and the profane, the religious and the secular.
But if we keep our sights focused on preserving our Jewish heritage into future generations; if we wish to live a holistic Jewish life whose civic experience is guided by the Jewish calendar, and if our national dream is to create a society able to merge heaven and earth, then the only place where this can happen is in the land of our dreams and destiny, the Land of Israel. It is the land promised by God to Israel, the earth whose sacred gravestones below and whose dedicated mountain tops above are that very ladder which connects the human with the Divine, and the Jew to his eternal dream of a united world.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.