Midrash Tanchuma presents a description of Yaakov’s dream that is mind boggling.
First, some historical background. There are many sources, including the Book of Daniel, and many Talmudic and Midrashic sources, that the Jewish People will undergo 4 exiles. The first was Babylonia (including the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem). The second is Persia-Medea (which overlaps the Purim story and the Jews returning to build the Second Temple). The third is Greece (including the Chanukah story which we will celebrate shortly). And finally Edom or Rome who destroyed the Second Temple – this is the interminably long exile that we are still in.
The ladder which traverses Jewish history
According to Midrash Rabbah, Yaakov saw the guardian angels of all four kingdoms (Babylonia, Persia,Medea, Greece and Rome) go up and descend the ladder. God then challenged Yaakov to go up the ladder but Yaakov was afraid to do so. After all, every nation that achieved world domination (goes up the ladder) had its downfall (comes down the ladder). So why ascend if you will eventually come crashing down (Midrash Tanchuma Vayetzei 2:1).*
God then guaranteed Yaakov that if he goes up he won’t come down, but Yaakov was still too frightened. God says that since Yaakov did not have enough faith, his descendants (the Jewish People) will be subjugated by each of these world powers.
As indeed we were.
אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ”ה, אִלּוּ עָלִיתָ וְהֶאֱמַנְתָּ, לֹא הָיְתָה לְךָ יְרִידָה לְעוֹלָם. אֶלָּא הוֹאִיל וְלֹא הֶאֱמַנְתָּ, הֲרֵי בָנֶיךָ מִשְׁתַּעְבְּדִין בְּהַלָּלוּ אַרְבַּע מַלְכֻיּוֹת בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה
“God said to him (Yaakov), if you had gone up (the ladder) and believed (in me) you would never have descended. But since you did not believe, behold your descendants will be subjugated by these four nations” (Ibid 2:3).
Of course this leaves us with an unsettling description of our revered forefather Yaakov. If taken literally, Yaakov seemed to turn down God’s offer and bring upon the Jewish people the tragedies that ensued – the destruction of the two temples, the exiles, and all the calamities to our very day.
Why was Yaakov afraid to ascend the ladder
According to one of the major commentaries 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 גֵיהִנָּם Gehenom (commonly referred to as “hell”). God agreed that it was the better choice.
In our case, God was promising that the Jewish People would never be subjugated or exiled. Based on the two choices that Avraham was given, Yaakov was afraid that the only punishment left would be Gehenom. Yaakov 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 Gehenom may not suffice to bring forgiveness to the Jewish People.
What emerges from this first approach is a somewhat positive spin on the Jewish people’s long, dark history in exile. It was certainly better than the alternative punishment. After all, we’re still here while all the world powers that subjugated us are gone.
Another approach to this Midrash is that it should not be taken so literally. This was a powerful dream that was designed to force Yaakov to confront his own fear. Let’s put the dream in context.
In last week’s Parsha Rebecca gets wind of Eisav’s plan to kill his brother Yaakov after Yitzchak passes away. Yaakov has to run for his life. He heads towards his mother’s family in Haran so he can find a wife there – as his father did. However, his circumstances would be radically different than when Eliezer went to the same family of Lavan to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer had gold and silver jewelry and other valuable gifts to ensure his success. Rivka will marry the sole heir to Avraham’s considerable wealth. Yaakov came empty handed.
As usual, the Midrash paints the psychological-emotional picture by comparing Yaakov with someone who killed accidentally and is running for his life to a city of refuge. (Midrash Tanchuma Vayetzei 1:1) He is being pursued by the victim’s next of kin. Yaakov’s dream represents his state of fear of Eisav. God reassuring Yaakov after his dream is compared to safely reaching the city of refuge.
Yaakov’s journey to a new name and a new essence
This entire Parsha and next week’s Parsha (Vayishlach) are the story of Yaakov literally transforming into someone with a heightened confidence in himself and in God’s readiness to intervene on his behalf. When Lavan chases after him, Yaakov confronts Lavan about his long history of hypocrisy and dishonesty. By the time Yaakov meets his next adversary – the angel of Eisav – Yaakov is stronger and even more confident. He wrestles all night and defeats his attacker. He even wrestles from the angel a new name which signifies Yaakov’s elevated status.** as one who hasתּוּכָֽל ׃ “prevailed:”
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹקֹים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
“And he (the angel} said: ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with the divine and with humans, and have prevailed” (Bereishis, 32:29).
Finally, Yaakov makes a plan for his encounter with Eisav which proves successful. That plan of bribery, prayer and warfare turned out to be a blueprint for dealing with all world powers that went up the ladder and subjugate the Jewish People. (Rashi, Bereishis 32:9}.
It all turns on faith
\Yaakov is not to blame that the kingdoms in his dream did in fact subjugate the Jewish people. The dream in which he was afraid to ascend the ladder, taught Yaakov that if he feared adversity he would not prevail. He had to find strength from his faith in God. Indeed, he got over his fear. He transformed himself and had the faith in God to stand up to his enemies. Through all those struggles he never compromised the way of life of his father and grandfather. As we see the way Yaakov is described when he prevails over all his adversaries: וַיָּבֹא֩ יַעֲקֹ֨ב שָׁלֵ֜ם עִ֣יר שְׁכֶ֗ם “And Yaakov arrived whole and complete to the city of Shechem”(Bereshis 33:18). Throughout all those years with an unsavory character as Lavan, he did not compromise his religious beliefs.
\The Jewish people, unfortunately did not fully absorb this lesson from Yaakov. The dream represents the fundamental concept of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים “What happens to our forefathers represents what will happen to their progeny.” The Jewish people faced adversity in the land of Israel. Had they kept their faith in the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, they would have had no reason to fear the mightiest of empires. They could have ascended the ladder without fear and never experience defeat and exile. However, since the Jewish people strayed from God, these empires became God’s emissaries to deliver the unpleasant consequences. It wasn’t Yaakov who caused the dark events in Jewish history, it was the failings of the Jewish people. Instead of a glorious history of faith, strength and independence, the Jewish people chose to write their history in far more somber tones
* אָמַר רַבִּי בֶרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֲלָבוֹ וְרַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בֶּן יוֹסִינָה, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהֶרְאָהוּ הַקָּבָּ’ה לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ שָׂרָהּ שֶׁל בָּבֶל עוֹלֶה וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל מָדַי עוֹלֶה וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל יָוָן עוֹלֶה וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל אֱדוֹם עוֹלָה וְיוֹרֵד. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיַעֲקֹב, יַעֲקֹב, לָמָּה אֵין אַתָּה עוֹלֶה. בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה נִתְיָרֵא אָבִינוּ יַעֲקֹב וְאָמַר, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁיֵּשׁ לָאֵלּוּ יְרִידָה, כָּךְ אֲנִי יֶשׁ לִי יְרִידָה
“Rabbi Berechia said in the name of Rabbi Chalvo and Rabbi Shmuel the son of Yosinna: This teaches us that God showed our Forefather Yaakov the angel of Babylonia going up and down, and of Medea going up and down and of Greece going up and down and of Edom (Rome) going up and down. God said to Yaakov: ‘Yaakov, why don’t you go up?’ At that moment Yaakov was afraid and said ‘just as all those fell so will I fall” (Midrash Tanchuma Vayeitzei 2:1)
** In the Torah a name change signifies that the essence of a person has changed. It seems that Avraham and Sarah needed to have their names changed from Avram and Sarei before they could experience the miracle of having a child in their old age.
Names in the Torah are significant. The Midrash says that Adam understood what was unique about every animal and was therefore able to name them. The word “Jew” comes from the name our Matriarch Leah called her 4th son – (Yehudah) Judah because a character trait of Jews is to be “Modeh.” A verb with two distinct (but related) meanings. To be grateful for the goodness that God bestows upon us and to admit when we are wrong. Which Yehuda did in a dramatic fashion in chapter 38 of Bereishis in the episode involving his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
Likewise, when one refuses to reveal their name it signifies a refusal to reveal one’s essence. As illustrated by the guardian angel of Eisav. When Yaakov was victorious and asked the angel what its name was, the angel was evasive:
וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י “Yaakov asked (the angel), ‘please tell me your name.” (The angel) said, ‘why would you want to ask me my name” (Genesis 32;30). This is the exact reply that the father of Shimshon got when he too asked the angel that visited them what its name was. וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לּוֹ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וְהוּא־פֶ֛לִאי׃ “And the angel said to him (Manoach – Shimshon’s father), ‘why would you want to ask me my name. It is unknowable” (Shoftim, 13:18)!.