Jacob’s vision of a ladder rising heavenward with angels ascending and descending it rungs appears to our hero at a moment of existential crisis. He has fled from his home out of fear that his brother Esau might kill him. His future is filled with uncertainty and anxiety. While on his journey, he stops for the night in Beit El where he experiences an extraordinary dream along with a promise for a secure future. While God’s promise is explicit, perhaps assuaging his uncertainty about his future, the meaning of the vision is left undeciphered and its impact on Jacob a mystery.
The vision itself is counterintuitive. One would have expected the angels to descend from heaven first and then ascend in return. Instead, the angels climb the ladder and then return to earth. This curiosity prompted a number of interesting interpretations, two of which are found in Vayikra Rabbah (29:2), a midrashic work composed in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period (4-5th century). In the first, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman identifies these angels with the nations which had conquered the Jewish nation: Angels, representing each of these nations, ascended and descended the ladder, each according to the length of their conquest of Judea. First, there were the Babylonians, whose conquest lasted 70 years, before being replaced by the Persians whose conquest lasted 52 years. They yielded to the Greeks who ruled over the Jews for 180 years before ceding to Roman rule. It was Roman rule which aroused the nation’ s (symbolized in this story by Jacob) existential fears since their rule seemed interminable. God, in this midrash, offers Jacob solace, promising him that Rome, too, would ultimately fall and its seemingly endless reign end.
Jacob’s fear over Roman rule fits in nicely with the events of the parasha. In this drashah, Jacob symbolically represents the Jewish nation, and Esau (or Edom), the Romans. Jacob’s existential anxiety in the biblical story, then comes to represent the nation’s concern over its future subjugation at the hands of the Romans and its uncertain future.
Vayikra Rabbah offers a second interpretation, brought in the name of Rabbi Meir, famed student of Rabbi Akiva and ardent supporter of Bar Kokhba, the general who led a disastrous failed rebellion against Rome. According to Rabbi Meir, each of these same empires, including Rome, rise and fall. Once Rome’s fate was sealed, God offered the Jews the opportunity to rise up to world dominion, promising them that if they accede, they would never fall! Jacob, representing the Jews in this story, is filled with trepidation, fearing that his fate will be just like that of the other nations. This “lack of faith”, according to Rabbi Meir, is what led to their continued subjugation. Rabbi Meir’s message must be seen in light of his support for Bar Kochba. He is likely asserting here that the rebellion’s failure was caused by its lack of popular support. He viewed this as a lack of faith.
The midrash answers this contention subtly. It notes that ultimately Rome would fall while the Jews would remain. Why? Because the Jews were fastidious in carrying out the mitzvah of Tzedaka (charity) while the Romans were not. There is a deeper “Jewish” message here. This midrash rejects magic “messianic” solutions. It argues that the process of redemption is normative and plodding. One makes it happen in real life with real life deeds. Fear and anxiety do not make things better. Nor do giant leaps of faith favoring magic solutions. Faith is an everyday matter where it is the little deeds that count.