Marc Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder
Jacob’s destiny was set from birth and would come at a price. As his mother Rebekah’s troubled twin pregnancy came to an end and the babies were born, Jacob holding Esau’s heel suggested a strong pre-natal desire to be born first and become 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, Jewish tradition asserts that Jacob’s spiritual potential merited his assuming first-born rights, and it also suggests that Rebecca knew that her other son 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 Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-22) signals the beginning of a 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 of what Carl Jung called the Ego, the limited “I” of Jacob, a man still unaware of the implicate order in the universe that links 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 stones as a pillow, we suspect that something unusual is about to happen, that he’s on the cusp of new self-consciousness. Lo and behold, he sees angels ascending (representing his yearning for something greater than himself) and angels descending (representing God’s outreach towards him), Rabbi Heschel’s idea of prophetic empathy and God’s pathos.
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 us to understand that we 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”). The religious person must transform the “I” of the ego into a great Self in which we become part of God’s Oneness. Jacob’s sudden awareness results in his newfound humility and is a prerequisite to the development of his faith.
Despite the spiritual potency of this experience, Jacob remains unaware (i.e. he lacks access to his full unconscious) and his faith is 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 narrative 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 pampered. However, in being forced to flee for his life from the brother he wronged, Jacob became aware of the shadow (Jung’s term denoting that part of the unconscious consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings and instincts) in which he lived and which would envelop him for the next twenty years. Then he met a being divine and human at the river Jabbok and emerged with a new name, Yisrael – the one who perseveres with God.
From Jacob’s birth to next week’s encounter at the river we witness the patriarch’s evolution from the unconsciousness of his childhood to greater awareness, from a self-centered trickster to the bearer of the covenant. As he progressed he learned to view the world through the eyes of faith as he stood at heaven’s gate.