This week’s parsha begins with Yaakov leaving. Scared that Eisav will kill him because of the brachot, and on the advice of Rivka, Yaakov leaves his parents, his family and his land. Alone, possibly destitute (Rashi, Bereishit, 29:11) and threatened by death, Yaakov is forced to flee from all that he knows and go into galut.
On his way, Yaakov arrives at a place unnamed in the pesukim and falls asleep. There he dreams of “a ladder standing on the ground, with its head reaching the heavens, and behold angels of G-d were going up and down on it” (Bereishit, 28:12). Rashi comments on the strange syntax of this pasuk. Surely angels would be coming down from heaven; why does the pasuk tell us they were going up first? Rashi answers that first the angels who accompanied Yaakov in the land of Israel were going up the ladder because they could not leave the land with him. Only then did the angels who would accompany Yaakov outside the land descend to him (Rashi, Bereishit, 28:12).
However, the Ramban offers an alternate explanation. Ramban draws a parallel between this prophecy and Avraham’s prophecy at the Brit Bein Habatarim. Both are visions about the four kingdoms – Bavel, Madai, Yavan and Edom – who over the course of history would each conquer and exile the Jewish people. Quoting the Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Ramban explains that Hashem shows Yaakov these four kingdoms each rising and gaining power… but then falling. Until finally Hashem showed Yaakov the fourth nation, Edom, descended from Eisav, which rose upwards but didn’t fall (Ramban, Bereishit, 28:12).
At this point, Yaakov is about to leave his parents and his land. He is fleeing from his murderous twin brother. He is about to enter galut. Why is this the vision Hashem chooses to give him now? A prophecy about how his descendants will also be exiled? A prophecy about the enormous, seemingly insurmountable power of Edom over Bnei Yisrael, of Eisav over Yaakov?
The Kli Yakar, quoting Moreh Nevuchim, explains that the ladder represents three levels of the world: 1) earth, on which the ladder stood 2) the world of the angels, ascending and descending and 3) heaven, where the top of the ladder reached. The ladder itself symbolises the connection between these levels. In this dream, Hashem was sending Yaakov a vital message. Not only does G-d show Yaakov he is not alone. Connection between these levels means that they can impact each other. The actions of human beings on earth have an effect; they ascend to heaven and cause a Divine response, which then comes down. “Going up” is first in the pasuk. Immediately before this dream, Yaakov davens maariv (Rashi, Bereishit, 28:11). He turns to Hashem and talks to him. And that action merits special protection; Hashem sends angels to look after him.
This prophecy is necessary for Yaakov at exactly this time – when he was alone and about to enter galut. Hashem was showing Yaakov that, just as He responded to him, sent him angels to accompany him and would remain connected to him in galut, so G-d would do the same for Yaakov’s descendants. And Hashem was showing the effect of our tefillot, of our actions and our efforts. Edom can keep climbing – but only until our actions merit an angel descending to protect us and halt Edom’s progress. Rather than this image being one of despair, it is an image of hope. An image of hope for Yaakov, about to encounter the figure of Lavan and embark on a life full of challenge. And an image of hope for us, Yaakov’s children, Bnei Yisrael, in the world we live in today, in which Edom seems all powerful and ascending. Yaakov is given a guarantee – for him and his children – that Hashem is with him, looking out for him and protecting him, even in galut. It is up to us to act in a way which merits a Divine response, which merits Hashem sending us an angel to halt Edom’s ascent and to end this exile.