We read in Parashat Vayeitzei of the famous dream that Yaakov beheld as he slept along his journey to Charan, a vision of a ladder extending to the heavens and of angels walking up and down the ladder (28:12).
The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (91b), commenting on this vision, teaches that Yaakov’s image is engraved upon God’s Heavenly Throne, and the angels Yaakov saw in his dream went back on forth between the Throne and the ground where Yaakov slept. The angels saw Yaakov’s image in the heavens, and then descended to the earth and saw that same image, observing Yaakov asleep on the ground.
A slightly more elaborate version of this tradition appears in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68:12), which relates that when the angels saw Yaakov sleeping, they ridiculed him. After seeing his image engraved under God’s Throne, a reflection of his lofty stature, the angels scorned Yaakov for sleeping. The Midrash draws an analogy to a king who was seen presiding over a case in his large ballroom, and was then later seen in a different room sleeping. The angels jeered at the sight of Yaakov, a man of unique prominence, lying on the ground sleeping.
It would seem that the Midrash here seeks to convey the message that “sleep” – lethargy, laziness and complacency – is inconsistent with the stature and role assigned to Am Yisrael. Yaakov, and his descendants, who have been given a cherished place near God’s Throne, chosen as His special nation, are held to a higher standard of achievement, and are thus not entitled to “sleep,” to take the easy route. We are called upon to work hard, to exert effort, to make sacrifices, to energetically pursue personal and collective greatness, without ever allowing ourselves the comfort of complacency.
Later (69:1), however, the Midrash tells us an additional aspect of Yaakov’s dream, one which perhaps sheds further light on the message conveyed by the depiction of the angels’ scorn. Yaakov dreamt that as the angels ascended and descended, God stood over him (28:13), and the Midrash explains this element of the vision by way of a striking analogy. The Midrash compares Yaakov in this scene to a young prince sleeping in his crib as flies hovered all around him, until his nanny came along and covered him, whereupon the flies quickly scattered. Similarly, the Midrash explains, Yaakov was surrounded by a “swarm” of angels that quickly disappeared once God Himself came to protect him. Approaching this account in light of the previous description of the angels’ hostility towards Yaakov, we might explain that whereas the angels viewed Yaakov’s sleeping with scorn and contempt, the Almighty came to his defense. The angels, who have no physical needs, could not imagine how a being so exalted as to earn a permanent place by the Heavenly Throne could lie practically lifeless on the ground. But God, who created human beings, and knows even better than people themselves just how frail and fragile they are, fully understands. While ideally, the angels are certainly correct in criticizing and censuring Am Yisrael for its “slumber,” God defends us, as it were, from their condemnation. He understands our limitations, and mercifully acknowledges that while we must, of course, extend ourselves to our maximum potential, we will, invariably, require periods of “sleep” and inactivity.
These two Midrashic passages, then, depict the ever-present tension between ambition and realism, between the need to push ourselves to our limits and the humble recognition of those limits. We must try, as much as possible, to maximize our full potential without compromising our standards, while also accepting our human limitations and avoiding the futile attempt to extend beyond them.