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a dream with two meanings

“And Jacob dreamed: And behold there was a ladder set upon the ground with its top reaching the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood over it…”

Jacob’s famous dream is something of a puzzle. The world “sulam”, usually translated as a ladder, is a hapax legomenon, that is a word occurring only once in the whole of the Bible. So the question remains open: What is the mysterious connection between the earthly and heavenly realms? And what is its significance for Jacob at this point in his journey?

The classic commentators view Jacob’s dream as a personal assurance of protection to him. Jacob is at a moment of particular loneliness and fear, as he flees from one adversary, his brother Esau, and makes his way towards another, his uncle Laban. At this vulnerable moment the vision reassures him that he will not be alone, and that his guardian angels shall remain with him.

But, alongside the view of the dream as a comment on Jacob’s personal situation, there are those who see it as a message on a far broader canvas. The Midrash Tanhuma (an early, 4th century, collection of Midrashic sources) sees in the dream a comment not about Jacob’s fate, but about the destiny of nations and empires:

“’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 rungs and descended, Medea, ascended fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred rungs and descended, Edom (Rome) ascended and no one knows how many! In that hour, Jacob was afraid and said: “Perhaps this empire will not descend?” Said the Holy One blessed be He to him: “Fear not, O my servant Jacob…”

For the author of this midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of empires which have oppressed the Jews, and the sulam is nothing other than the ladder of world history. Writing at a time when other empires had risen and fallen, but the Roman empire yet remained strong, the midrash saw the dream as a promise that this empire too would go the way of all others, and God’s promise to the Jewish people would yet be fulfilled.
So which is it? A promise to Jacob the man, at a specific point in his life? Or a promise to Jacob the patriarch, as a symbol of the entire Jewish people, intended to resonate throughout the generations?

A strange ambiguity in the text suggests that it is intended to be read both ways. As Jacob sees the ladder, the text tells us that “the Lord stood alav ” – the word “alav” can mean both ‘over him’ and ‘over it’. And it makes a difference. “Over him”, suggests that God was watching over Jacob, giving him a personal guarantee of protection . “Over it” suggests that God is overseeing the ladder, the cosmic rise and fall of history.

And indeed the promise given by God in the dream seems to carry a double message of reassurance – for Jacob the man, the fugitive, about to leave his country for a strange land, and for Jacob the Jewish people, destined to wander homeless though generations of exile:

“Behold, I am with you, and I shall protect you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land, for I shall not abandon you until I have done everything of which I have spoken to you”

Gen. 28:15

This blessing, seemingly directed both at Jacob as an individual, and at Jacob as a symbol of the Jewish people, is perhaps a reminder that we all live such a dual existence: as individuals traveling our own personal journeys, and as members of a people playing out its destiny in the long history of nations.

In others’ words

“No human being is wealthy or powerful enough to transplant a nation from one habitation to another. An idea alone can achieve that and this idea of a State may have the requisite power to do so. The Jews have dreamt this kingly dream all through the long nights of their history. “Next year in Jerusalem” is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.”

Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State

On a lighter note

Herzl and Freud
It is a curious fact that for two years, between 1896 and 1898, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud were living on the same street, Berggasse, in Vienna (Herzl at number  and Freud at number 19). So one cannot help wondering how different the course of Zionist history might have been, if instead of writing ‘The Jewish State’, Herzl had strolled over to the house of the famous psychoanalyst knocked on the door, and said: “I’ve had this dream…”

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