The Torah in the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei tells of the famous prophetic vision that Yaakov beheld in a dream as he slept on the roadside during his journey from Canaan to his uncle, Lavan, in Charan (28:12-15). Yaakov saw a ladder extending from the ground to the heavens, and angels ascending and descending the ladder. He then beheld a vision of God standing over him and assuring him that He would care for him during his sojourn in Charan and eventually bring him back to his homeland. God further promised Yaakov that he would produce a large nation that would inherit the Land of Israel, effectively confirming his right to the blessing given to Avraham and Yitzchak, which Yitzchak had granted him just before leaving home (28:3-4).
It is told (in Likutei Yehuda, Parashat Vayeitzei) that the Imrei Emet, the third Rebbe of Ger, once asked his son (and eventual successor), the Beit Yisrael, why in Yaakov’s dream he did not join the angels up the ladder. If he was given a ladder with which to ascend together with the angels all the way to the heavens, why did he remain on the ground? The Beit Yisrael reportedly replied by noting that in Yaakov’s dream, “the Lord was standing over him…” Yaakov had no reason to ascend to the heavens, because God was right near him where he was, on the ground where he slept.
The Beit Yisrael’s response is not merely a clever quip; it points to a significant aspect of Yaakov’s dream, namely, that even though Yaakov lay alongside a ladder extending to the heavens, God was with Yaakov down on earth. We are not expected to be angelic, to live a “heavenly” existence. As the angels climb to the heavens, we are to remain here on earth, and it is specifically here, in our earthly existence, where we encounter the Almighty. We are to serve God not as heavenly angels, but rather as earthly human beings.
This message was especially relevant to the circumstances surrounding Yaakov’s prophecy. He was now leaving the serene conditions of his parents’ home in Be’er Sheva and going to live with his corrupt, wily, idolatrous uncle, Lavan. There he would spend twenty years working as a shepherd, tending to the herds under his charge with unparalleled diligence and devotion, as Yaakov himself attests towards the end of this parasha (31:38-40). His lived both geographically and spiritually far from home, submerged in materialism and embroiled in a tense, constant struggle with his crooked uncle. In light of the Beit Yisrael’s remark, we might understand Yaakov’s vision as a message that God would always be standing over him, even while he was “trapped” on the ground watching angels ascend to the heavens. He should not feel troubled by being forced to remain on the “ground,” tirelessly tending to his uncle’s sheep, because even there, “God is standing over him.” We can encounter God in any situation into which we are thrust, by doing the best we can under the circumstances to serve God and apply the Torah’s laws and values to our current conditions, whatever they may be.