The Midrash states that during the famous dream of angels going up and down the ladder, Yaakov saw a vision of Jewish history starkly different from our own reality. A vision so bold that Yaakov was frightened and turned down God’s offer to make it a reality.
I will share some of the answers given as to why Yaakov made this decision. However, I must freely admit that the question is better than the answers:
Here is the incident as recorded in Midrash Tanchuma:“Rabbi Berechiah, in the name of Rabbo Helbo, and Rabbi Simeon the son of Yosinah said: God showed our patriarch Yaakov the guardian angel of Babylon ascending and descending, the guardian angel of Media ascending and descending, the guardian angel of Greece ascending and descending, and the guardian angel of Edom (Rome) also ascending and descending. God said to Yaakov: ‘Why do you not ascend?’ Whereupon our patriarch Yaakov was afraid and asked: “Just as they descended so shall I? God responded: “If you ascend, you will not descend.” He (Yaakov) did not believe God and did not ascend.”
It seems that God was offering Yaakov to transform the future Jewish People into a world power that would never decline. Sovereignty in the Land of Israel with no exile. Midrash continues with the consequences of Yaakov’s decision to decline God’s offer:
“God said to him (Yaakov), if you had gone up (the ladder) and believed me, you would never have descended. But since you did not believe, behold your descendants will be subjugated by those four nations…”
What Yaakov was afraid of
According to the commentary on Midrash Tanchuma, Be-er Amarim, Yaakov’s fear stemmed from an encounter between God and Avraham recorded in Midrash Tanchuma on the Parsha of Pekudei (chapter 8). Avraham was asked to choose the form of punishment that would be used against the Jewish People in the future. Avraham chose subjugation rather than Gehenom (hell). God agreed that it was the better choice.
In our case, God was promising that the Jewish People would never be subjugated. Based on the two choices that Avraham was given, Jacob was afraid that the only punishment left would be Gehenom. Jacob did not want any Jew to lose their share in the world to come as a tradeoff for the Jews being a world power in the here and now. Furthermore, he was afraid that some future sins might be so severe that even afflictions may not be suffice to bring forgiveness to the Jewish People.
This quotation from Midrash Tanchuma also appears in Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra Rabbah 29:2) for the Parsha of Pekudei. The commentator, Etz Yoseph, adds the fact that Yaakov did not have the same kind of simple faith of Avraham. When God said that the Jewish People would never come down the ladder – be subjugated – Yaakov didn’t take it at face value as Avraham would have. Rather, Yaakov worried that future misdeeds of the Jewish People could still derail this promise.
What are the consequences to Jewish Destiny? The commentators point out that instead of being punished directly by God with afflictions, the nations of the world are often the stick that God used to keep the Jewish People in line.
How do we grasp the enormity of this Midrash
God was offering a completely different history from what has unfolded to date. This is the reason why I stated at the outset that the question is better than the answer.
The only way I could put this in context is to compare it to Midrash Tanchuma Noach where we learn about another major theological realignment. Avraham requested that Mankind have constant setbacks, failures and disappointments so they can glean signals from God when He wants a course correction in our actions. Avraham argued that because the generation of the flood did not have this way of running the world in place, they didn’t know that God was unhappy with their corrupt and morally perverse society. Avraham’s request was granted.
That’s a pretty significant change in the way God ran the world prior to Avraham’s request. Of course, it’s easy to accept it because this is the world we live in. However our Midrash concerning what might have been is just too hard to imagine.
Perhaps this new world order was fraught with other pitfalls and Yaakov actually made the right decision.