Jacob’s destiny was set from birth, but it would come at a price. As his mother Rebekah’s troubled twin pregnancy came to an end and the babies were born, Jacob emerged holding Esau’s heel suggesting a strong pre-natal desire to be born first and become, one day, the future leader of the tribe. In a clever commentary, Rashi (11th century, France) says that the scene reflects a primogeniture truth, that Jacob was actually conceived first, though he came out second, much as a pebble dropped into a tube first will come out second when the tube is inverted.
Despite being second-born, tradition asserts that Jacob’s spiritual potential merited his assuming first-born rights, and it also suggests that Rebecca knew that Esau, a hunter, lacked the requisite sensitivity, gentility, vision, and prophetic capacity to lead the tribe whereas Jacob possessed all those virtues.
Jacob’s dream event that opens this week’s portion (Genesis 28:10-22) signals the beginning of an important new stage in Jacob’s life. He had just fled in fear from an enraged Esau, was alone in the mountains, unsure of himself, and exhausted. He fell asleep and dreamed of ladders and angels.
This dream sequence is filled with powerful religious imagery, suggestion and mythic archetypes. The stones Jacob placed under his head are symbolic representing what Carl Jung called the Ego, the limited “I” of Jacob, a man still unaware (until this week’s portion) of the deeper implicate order linking the material and metaphysical worlds. The top of the ladder represents what Jung called the integrated Self which unifies the conscious and unconscious into a non-dualistic cosmos.
When Jacob went to sleep using those stones as a kind of pillow, we suspect that something unusual is about to happen, that he is on the cusp of new self-consciousness. Lo and behold, he sees angels ascending (representing our human yearnings and outreach for something greater than ourselves) and angels descending (representing God’s outreach towards us).
When Jacob awoke from the dream and opened his eyes, he was astonished: “Surely God is in this place, va’anochi lo yadati, and I did not know it! … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (28:16-17)
The beginning of any religious experience requires that we understand that we really know nothing at all. In Hebrew “I” is ani (anochi is a variant form), and when we rearrange the letters – aleph, nun, yod – we spell ain, which means “nothing”). In other words, the religious person must transform the “I” of our limited egos into a great Self in which we become part of the Oneness of God. Jacob’s sudden awareness reflects his newfound humility and is a prerequisite to the development of his faith.
Despite the spiritual potency of this experience, Jacob is still unaware (i.e. he lacks access to his full unconscious) and his faith is consequently conditional. He says, “If God remains with me, if God protects me…, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe … – the Eternal shall be my God.” (28:20-21)
One of the consistent themes throughout the Genesis narratives is that in order for the Biblical figures to grow in faith they had to suffer trials. As a protected child of his mother, Jacob had been always pampered. However, in being forced to flee for his life from the brother he wronged, Jacob first became aware of the shadow (Jung’s term denoting that part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts) in which he lived and which would envelop him for the next twenty years when at last he will meet a being divine and human at the river Jabbok and emerge with a new name, Yisrael – the one who struggles with God but prevails.
From Jacob’s birth to next week’s struggle we see his evolution from the unconsciousness of childhood to greater awareness, from being a self-centered trickster to the bearer of the covenant. As he progressed he learned that he must choose whether or not he will view the world through the eyes of faith.
For each of us, too, how we choose to see the world is consequential, and one of the most important consequences is whether or not we permit ourselves to stand at heaven’s gate.