"The Stairway to Heaven"

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

by Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

PARASHAT VAYETZE

 

"The Stairway to Heaven"

 

 

            The immediate repercussions of Jacob's deceiving his father in order to receive the blessing are not favorable.  Jacob is forced to flee the land of Israel and take refuge from his brother Esau's murderous rage.  Our parasha opens with a description of Jacob on his journey/escape to Charan.

 

28:10-19: "Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Charan. He came upon the certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  He had a dream; a stairway was set on the earth and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, 'I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.  Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.'  Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!'  Shaken, he said, 'How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.' Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He named that site Beit-El; but previously the name of the city had been Luz."

 

            The Torah's description of Jacob arouses our sympathy.  Jacob is forced to flee his home and parents, completely uncertain of what the future holds for him.  He is alone, with nothing to his name.  As night falls, he takes some stones and sleeps out in the wilderness exposed to the cold and dangerous animals of prey.  He is the epitome of helplessness and vulnerability; seemingly more forsaken than blessed.

 

THE PANGS OF DEPARTURE

 

            Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) queries with regard to the language of verse 10: "Jacob left Beer-Sheba and headed toward Charan."  It was necessary (for scripture) to write only, "And Jacob went toward Charan."  Why then does the scripture mention his departure?  What does the scripture gain by informing us that Jacob left Beer-Sheba.  If he went to Charan he obviously left his home!

 

             Rashi explains: "It is to tell us that the departure of a righteous man from any place makes an impression.  For during the time that the righteous man is in a city he constitutes its glory, he is its splendor, he is its crown; but when he departs from there, there departs its glory, there departs its splendor, there departs its crown." 

 

            The Torah mentions Jacob's departure from Beer-Sheba to stress the great loss which the city incurred when he left.  His departure was a serious blow to the city and its inhabitants.

 

            The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) offers an explanation diametrically opposed to that of Rashi.  The Torah mention Jacob's departure not in order to stress the city of Beer-Sheba's loss, but rather to stress Jacob's loss and sorrow over having to leave his family and the land of Israel.  Jacob knows that the land of Israel is endowed with unique qualities conducive to devoutness and the achievement of spiritual perfection.  He feared that his leaving Israel was a sign of rejection and disapproval.  He feared that his would be a similar fate to Lot's and Yishmael's who were excluded from Abraham's covenant.  Esau remains in the promised land and he, Jacob, is departing to exile.  This dislocation from the soil and from the family weighed very heavily upon Jacob.  He dreaded the possibility of being distanced from God.  The Torah therefore stresses his departure to emphasize the difficulty and the sorrow which it entailed.

 

"THE CERTAIN PLACE"

 

            Verse 11 states that "He [Jacob] came upon the certain place and stopped there for the night."  The Torah uses a definite article in describing the location - "BA-makom" (THE place).  The commentators offer different and diverse suggestions in attempting to identify this "certain place." 

 

            Our sages, in the Midrash Rabba (an early compilation of homiletical interpretations), interpret "the place" as a reference to God, and the verb "va-yifga" (came upon) as denoting prayer.  Jacob, according to this explanation, instituted the Evening Prayer.  The difficult circumstances in which Jacob finds himself prompt his calling out to God for assistance.

 

            Rashi cites a different explanation of our sages: "This can refer only to the place which is mentioned elsewhere, namely Mount Moria, regarding which it is stated "And he [Abraham] saw THE PLACE from afar" (Genesis 22:4).  Jacob's dream took place in the same location as the 'akeida' (the binding of Isaac), the future location of the temple.

 

            It would appear that not only the common word ("makom") prompted this interpretation.  The content of Jacob's dream, the vision of angels, and his reaction "How awesome is this place - this is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven," surely prompted the connection to Moria, the Temple Mount. 

 

            According to this interpretation, God directs Jacob to Jerusalem so that he can see the place of the 'House of God' before going into exile.  This vision accompanies Jacob in his years in exile, and serves as a reminder of the spiritual centrality of the land of Israel.  God signals to Jacob that His 'house' is on mount Moria, and that His presence is most strongly felt in Israel.  Jacob's sojourn is only temporary and he must eventually return and fulfill the task of building a sanctuary for God.  Upon awakening, Jacob takes up the challenge and vows that if God remains with him in exile then "this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be God's abode" (28:22).  This vow foreshadows the aspiration of generations of Jews in exile to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  It stresses that exile is a temporary aberration in the covenant and the destiny of the Jewish people.

 

            However, this interpretation raises certain obvious difficulties.  Jacob calls the place Beth-El, and the Torah states that Luz was its original name (verse 19).  The narrative seems to have taken place in Luz, and not in Jerusalem! (See Rashi's difficult solution and the Ramban who disagrees and elucidates the different approaches of our sages).  In light of these difficulties, certain commentators rejected the identification of the location of Jacob's dream as Jerusalem. 

 

            The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550), for example, posits that "the place" is not the location of the Temple, but rather the location which every city allotted for guests' sleeping accommodations.  It is the ancient forerunner of the hotel. 

 

            Another interpretation, offered by the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167), suggests that the Torah is quoting the words of Moses.  At the time of the giving of the Torah, the location of Jacob's dream was known and deemed a holy sight.  The Torah uses, without any elaboration, a definite article in relation to a location in Beth-El since the location referred to was known by all. 

 

INTERPRETATIONS OF THE DREAM

 

            The question of the location of the dream is not only a matter of geography; it also affects our understanding of the content of Jacob's dream.

 

            Jacob's dream includes a vision of the stairway and an oral communication from God in which God promises to protect Jacob, bring him back to the land of Israel and bequeath the land to his offspring.  What is the meaning of Jacob's peculiar but incredible vision?

 

            This question is actually two-fold. First, what do the stairway connecting the earth to the sky and the angels ascending and descending it represent? Second, how does this vision relate to Jacob and the present circumstances in which he finds himself?

 

            Let us begin by analyzing some of the homiletical interpretations offered by our sages, and then determine how these interpretations may answer the two aforementioned questions?

 

"Bar Kappara taught: No dream is without its interpretation.  AND BEHOLD A LADDER symbolizes the stairway (leading to the top of the altar in the Temple.); SET UP ON THE EARTH - the altar, as it says, 'An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me' (Ex. 20:21); AND THE TOP OF IT REACHED TO HEAVEN - the sacrifices, the scent of which ascended to heaven; AND BEHOLD THE ANGELS OF GOD - the High Priests; ASCENDING AND DESCENDING ON IT - ascending and descending the stairway.  AND BEHOLD, THE LORD STOOD BESIDE HIM (28:13) - 'I saw the Lord standing beside the altar' (Amos 9:1)." (Midrash Rabba Vayetze)

 

            According to this interpretation, Jacob's vision portrays the offering of sacrifices by the priests in the Temple.  The stairway symbolizes the steps to the altar in the Temple, and the angels represent priests offering sacrifices.  This explanation adopts the position which identifies the location of Jacob's dream as Mount Moria, the sight of the temple in Jerusalem. Jacob sees a vision of the temple of God which is to be built on the spot where he presently sleeps.  As stated above, the purpose of this vision is to ingrain in Jacob the understanding of the spiritual centrality of the land of Israel and to signal to Jacob that his exile is only temporary and that he must eventually return to Israel.

 

            The Midrash Rabba cites a second interpretation:

 

"The Rabbis related it to Sinai.  AND HE DREAMED, AND BEHOLD A LADDER symbolizes Sinai; SET UP ON THE EARTH, as it says, 'And they stood at the foot of the mountain' (Ex. 19:17); AND THE TOP OF IT REACHED TO HEAVEN - 'And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven' (Deut. 4:11).  AND BEHOLD THE ANGELS OF GOD alludes to Moses and Aaron.  ASCENDING: 'And Moses went up to God' (Ex. 19:3); AND DESCENDING - 'And Moses went down from the mount' (ib. 14).  AND BEHOLD, THE LORD STOOD BESIDE HIM - And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai (ib. 20)."

 

            The interpretation of the Rabbis, is intriguing.  Jacob's vision symbolizes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  The ladder represents Mount Sinai and the angels, Moses and Aaron ascending the mountain. What is the idea behind the Rabbis' seemingly farfetched interpretation?

 

            I believe that according to this interpretation, God was preparing Jacob for his sojourn away from home.  Jacob was leaving his family and about to enter a totally different type of culture.  What will ensure his survival as a Jew?  What will prevent his assimilation into the enchanting cosmopolitan Babylonian culture?  Only through his continual attachment to the heritage of his fathers, to the commandments and customs of his family will he not lose his identity.

 

            Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (a collection of midrashim mostly on Genesis) cites another homiletical interpretation of our sages:

 

"'And behold the angels of God ascending and descending': These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father.  The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many!  In that hour, Jacob was afraid and said: 'Perhaps this one has no descent?'  Said the Holy One blessed be He to him: 'Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob ... neither be dismayed, O Israel.'  Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me,  I bring him down! "

 

            According to this interpretation, the stairway represents ascendancy to power and world domination, and the angels represent the different nations.  Each nation rises to power for a period represented by the number of steps its angel climbs up the stairway (Babylon ruled for seventy years) and then declines and is replaced by a new world power.  Babylon gives way to Media (Persia), Persia to Greece, and Greece succumbs to Edom (Rome).  Jacob's vision is actually a prophecy of the future rise and fall of empires.  How does this relate to Jacob and his current circumstances? 

 

            The Ramban explains that God "showed Jacob that whatever is done on earth is effected by means of the angels, and everything is by His decree...  He further showed Jacob that He stands above the ladder and promises that Jacob will not be under the power of the angels, but he will be God's portion, and that He will always be with him ..."  God assures Jacob that He will watch over him while in exile and although Esau might temporarily have the upper hand, he will eventually fall.  Interestingly, Edom is the only empire which is described as ascending the ladder but not descending it.  Why is this? 

 

            We should remember that this homiletical interpretation was written during the time of our sages while the Roman Empire still controlled Israel.  The sages interpreted the struggle between Jacob and Esau as symbolic of the conflict between Israel and the Roman Empire.  The midrash was written with the belief and the anticipation of the impending downfall of the Romans.

 

            All three interpretations cited so far are midrashim belonging to the homiletical school of interpretation.  The connection between their interpretations and the symbols in Jacob's dream are relatively remote.  The stairway in the vision is invested with symbolic significance far beyond a stairway connecting heaven and earth.  It represents either the Temple Mount, or Mount Sinai, or the power and control over the world invested in the hands of the different nations.  We will now analyze some of the 'peshat' interpretations (simpler, non-homiletical interpretations).

 

            Rashi expounds Jacob's vision as follows.  The Torah states that the angels first ascend and then descend, counter to our expectation that the angels first descend to the world from heaven.  Rashi therefore explains that "the angels that accompanied him in the land of Israel do not leave Israel, so they ascended to the heavens. Then the angels of exile descended to accompany him."

 

            According to this interpretation, the angels and the stairway are interpreted literally, as angels and as the stairway to heaven.  The challenges and dangers endemic to Diaspora existence are substantially different from those in Israel.  Hence, the protection and overseeing required in Diaspora are different and are therefore performed by different angels.  God informs Jacob that his departure from Israel does not deprive him of divine overseeing.  God will escort Jacob even while in a foreign land, in the house of Laban.

 

            Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (Germany, 1843-1921) interprets differently.  He explains that God revealed to Jacob the stairway which connects the earth to heaven in order to challenge Jacob. This stairway is the path to perfection, to approaching God.  The key to ascending this stairway is the keeping of the commandments and the performance of God's will.  Jacob's situation is deteriorating.  He is running for his life and must depart from the chosen land.  In this woeful state God appears to Jacob and shows him the path to his future success.  Jacob can still triumph over his brother Esau; he must only ascend the stairway of righteousness and perfection.  The ascension of this stairway will make him worthy of continuing Abraham's covenant and inheriting the land of Israel.  To improve his situation; he must only ascend the 'stairway to heaven.'