Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-22) was his first encounter with the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac, and is part of a narrative that culminates next week in a second meeting at the River Jabbok (Genesis 32). There, in the darkness of night, Jacob wrestled with a Divine/human being and became Yisrael, the one who struggles with God.
In these Genesis chapters, we watch Jacob grow into the Jewish leader he was destined to become. As a boy he was graced with great spiritual potential, but he was ethically challenged and needed a full range of life experience, including hardship and suffering, before he could assume leadership of the tribe.
At the core of his life was his relationship with his twin brother Esau, a relationship that was troubled from the start. Even before birth in Rebekah’s womb they struggled. Jacob emerged second holding Esau’s heel signaling both his resolve and his destiny to become the leader.
Rashi reasoned that Jacob’s apparent manipulation and deceit in attaining the birthright in last week’s portion Toldot gained for him what should have been his from the beginning. After all, Rashi explained, if you drop a pebble into a flask followed by a second pebble, and then invert the flask, what happens? The second pebble falls out first. Thus, though Esau was born first, he was conceived second.
As the boys grew, Rebekah understood as only a parent can that Esau lacked the necessary spiritual gifts to effectively lead the tribe, whereas Jacob possessed deep understanding of the spiritual world. She therefore compounded Jacob’s unethical behavior with her own, and orchestrated with him a plan whereby Isaac would bless Jacob as the first-born in Esau’s place.
Our commentators struggled with the deception. Some explained that Isaac’s old age, blindness and feeble-mindedness kept him from knowing which son was which, and so he was easily tricked in blessing the wrong son. However, all evidence suggests otherwise, that Isaac was not at all feeble-minded, nor was he confused. He had maintained and built upon his father’s wealth, and his blessings of his two sons in last week’s portion (Genesis 27:28-29, 39-40) were each eloquent poetry describing Jacob’s and Esau’s respective natures and destinies.
It seems to me that Isaac was a silent and willing partner with Rebecca in the ruse, that though loving Esau dearly, Isaac agreed that Jacob was the more fitting heir and leader. This was not the first instance in which the younger exceeded the older (e.g. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac).
Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven at Bethel signals the spiritual destiny of the Jewish people. Commentators note that the stairway (sulam – samech, lamed, mem) totals 130 according to the science of gematria that assigns number equivalents to Hebrew letters, just as Sinai (samech, nun, yod) also totals 130, thus linking Jacob’s dream-revelation and Moses communion with God at Mt. Sinai.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he was astonished and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”
For the first time in his life Jacob experienced awe, wonder and humility, the quality of which he sorely lacked and needed to lead effectively his tribe.
Jacob’s faith was not yet fully evolved despite his powerful encounter with God at Bethel. Though moved, he vows his obeisance to God conditionally:
“If God remains with me, if God protects me …, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – then the Eternal shall be my God.”
Nachmanides (also Ramban – 13th century) explained that Jacob was not as deficient in faith as the narrative suggests. He doubted not God but himself, because he knew that he was a man prone to committing sin. Ramban says that Jacob’s conditional vow was a sign of his righteousness.
Among the great themes in the patriarchal and matriarchal narratives is that our Biblical heroes all suffer fear and a sense of inadequacy, as do each of us. Only the hardship that comes with life experience facilitates their spiritual and moral growth.
This week Jacob dreams, falls in love and is tricked by Rather’s father, Laban, to serve him for many years that he may marry Rachel. Laban made Jacob’s life miserable, and so at last he fled with his family.
In next week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob’s spiritual and familial journey reaches a peek moment as he encounters for the second time a Divine/human being on the night before he is scheduled to meet the brother that he so wronged twenty years earlier. That night encounter and the next day’s meeting are among the most dramatic moments in all of Biblical narrative.
The story is not only about the meeting between estranged brothers. It is about each one of us. Stay tuned!