Vayetzei: An Ecstatic Dream-Work

The most wonderful aspect of revelation, then, is not its content, but its possibility: Not the word of God, but the encounter itself. … not an idea conveyed, but a relationship formed – Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History.

Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching to the heavens is perhaps the most interpreted dream of all time.  However, while the dream does countenance many an interpretation, it is my contention that the text itself – as with all parable dreams in the Bible[1] – furnishes the literal interpretation.[2]  Furthermore, upon recognizing the interpretation that resides within the text, a deeper understanding of the nature and intent of the dream as a whole can be gained; and with it, answers to a number of anomalies in the narrative.

Nehama Leibowitz, in her discussion of the dream, explains that while there are two distinct types of dreams – parable and direct communication – Jacob’s dream is composed of both: the parable part being the ladder vision and the direct communication part being the address from God.  I propose that the direct communication comes in response to the parable and thus serves as its implicit interpretation.

To understand, let us refer to Freud’s dream-work theory which explains how one’s desires and suppressed thoughts, known as the “latent” content of the dream, then “manifest” in the details of the dream.  Mark Solms, in an article entitled “Freudian Dream Theory Today”, summarizes as follows:

The differences between the ‘manifest’ and the ‘latent’ content of dreams led Freud to infer an intervening process, by means of which the unconscious wishes could be transformed into conscious dreams.  This intervening process was the so-called dream-work, which involved mechanisms such as ‘displacement’ (substituting representational elements for one another, e.g. your father is represented as a policeman), ‘condensation’ (combining multiple elements into composite hybrids, e.g. ambition, excitement and anxiety are all represented by a single image of an ascending escalator) …

Amazingly, the example employed by Solms to explain the dream-work mechanism of “condensation” recalls Jacob’s ladder – for a ladder, like an escalator, is a vehicle for ascending and descending.  And while a ladder itself is static, Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, thus adding the dynamic of an escalator.[3]

Now, though Solms mentions that both ambition and anxiety can be represented by an ascending escalator, I suggest that Jacob’s ambitions are represented by ascending angels while his anxieties are given expression in descending angels.  Interpreting the symbols as such explains why the angels, whose abode is heaven, were ascending before descending – for Jacob first expressed his ambitions which then gave way to his fears.  And, as will be explained, it is precisely in this order that the divine communication addresses Jacob – first ambitions and then fears.

That Jacob was ambitious can be seen already at his birth when, “holding on to the heel of his brother” he demonstrated his ambition to assume the birthright (Hizkuni).  This ambition is underscored by the text which relates only two stories of Jacob prior to his ladder dream: (1) buying the birthright itself and (2) acquiring the birthright blessing.  Clearly his life’s ambition was to assume the birthright mantle as heir to the Abrahamic covenant.  To this ambition, manifest as angels ascending the ladder, God responds with the covenantal promises He made to Abraham, in almost the very same words used with the founding patriarch (compare Genesis 28:13-14 to Genesis 13:14-16; 12:3).  The divine address, then, is a direct response to the ambition expressed in the parable and thus provides, albeit implicitly, its interpretation.

Ambitions notwithstanding, in leaving the very land he was to inherit, on the run from a brother avowed to kill him and headed for an uncle infamous for deceit, Jacob was beset with deep and legitimate fears.  To these fears, manifest as angels descending the ladder, God responds, in what again serves as an implicit interpretation of the parable: “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Gen. 28:15).  Here God assuages Jacob’s fears for safety as well as mollifying his concerns over the leaving the land of the birthright.

Now, while we have noted a dichotomy between the parable and the divine communication, the two are really interconnected in that when God appears to Jacob, He appears “on the ladder.”  If so, the interpretation provided by the divine address was really part of the dream itself.  But what was the nature of this divine communication, coming, as it does, integrated in the dream?  Was it just a dream?  Furthermore, beyond addressing Jacob’s ambitions and fears, what was the intent of the covenant in this context?  Was it a true covenant?

Comparing this first divine appearance at Jacob’s departure from the land with the divine appearance upon Jacob’s return to the land (35:9-12), it can be noted that, while the first contained the promise of the covenant, the second contained the establishment of the covenant (see Rashi, Exodus 6:4).  Yet, if God brings Jacob into the covenant when he returns to the land, what then is the significance of the covenantal communication upon his departure?

Looking at the verses which find their parallel in both episodes (28:18-19 v. 35:14-15), we note that in each case Jacob sets up a pillar of stone and anoints it with oil, and in each case Jacob calls the place Beth-el.  In the second instance he also anoints the pillar with a drink-offering, which Seforno explains was done to fulfill the prior vow of making it a House of God following the ladder appearance.  Most striking, however, is that the text of the second encounter repeatedly states that God “spoke” with Jacob, whereas the term is never mentioned following the dream.  Could this not serve to emphasize that the second encounter constituted a “spoken”[4] prophecy, while the first encounter was a dream-based appearance – a vision?[5]

The total dream-work, then, was part the making of Jacob’s ambitions and fears and part the making of a dreamy divine appearance.  And while Jacob was clearly aware that his dream contained a divine appearance, as evidenced by his exclamations of wonder upon awakening (28:16-17), it was, nevertheless, an appearance which retained the ethereal quality of a dream.  It was enough to engender a deeply committed relationship, but not to establish an authentic covenant.  It was experiential not intellectual, ecstatic not rational.

Interestingly, by interpreting the dream-work as such, we can now understand the anomalous vow that Jacob made upon awakening from his dream, when he said, “If God will be with me …”  How, it must be asked, could he make such a conditional statement when God Himself just told him, “And, Behold, I am with you”?  While many solutions have been offered, the question simply disappears if the divine address was not a prophetic communication but rather a vision integrated into Jacob’s dream.  For as such, Jacob was not questioning what God had just told him, but rather praying that what he had just seen, indeed, be fulfilled.  His prayer took the form of a vow, for the use of a vow is said to be efficacious in times of trouble (Genesis Rabba 70:1).

In conclusion, the dream encounter was an awesome vision, not a prophetic discourse.  There were no words spoken to Jacob in the dream, only an awe-inspiring feeling conveyed.  The text records the “communication” between God and Jacob by the only means it has: words; and it uses the only words its readers are familiar with – those used by God to promise the covenant to Abraham, but not to establish it.  For the goal of this first revelation was not to establish a covenant on the eve of Jacob’s exile, but rather to provide an encounter that would affirm his ambitions, assuage his fears, and most importantly inspire an unshakeable relationship to which he would be forever beholden.


[1]   R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Sheleimah, Gen. 28, maamar 70) explains that this is the first of seven parable dreams in the Bible, yet curiously it is the only one whose interpretation is not found in the text.  As said, this essay seeks to demonstrate that Jacob’s dream is no different than the others in this genre.

[2]   It should be clear that the explanation provided in this essay in no way diminishes from the validity of the explanations that have accompanied the text for hundreds of years, but rather comes only to expose one of the “seventy faces” of the divine text.

[3]   I would like to acknowledge my son Eitan Navon for this insight.

[4] I do not here mean to imply that God “speaks”, for as noted by Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, part I, ch. 65), such is merely anthropomorphism where the intent is only that God communicates to man.  Nevertheless there is a qualitative difference between a vision lacking “speech” and a prophecy denoted by “speech”.

[5]   Indeed, Rashi (Gen. 35:13) writes “I don’t know what this comes to teach us”.  Perhaps the lesson is that the message in this encounter was a verbal prophecy, in contradistinction to the message in the dream encounter which was purely a vision.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at