At the beginning of this week's reading, Jacob has his famous dream (Genesis 28:12):
He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
In the continuation of this dream, God stood over Jacob, telling him all sorts of reassuring things: “the ground on which you are lying I will grant to you and to your offspring... your offspring shall be as [numerous as] the dust of the earth... all of the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your descendants... I will protect you wherever you go." And yet, when Jacob awakes he is described as afraid (Genesis 28:17):
He was afraid, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”
The verb that describes Jacob as afraid, "וירא", and the adjective that Jacob uses to describe the location of his dream as awesome, "נורא", share a root. Accordingly, we don't have to say that Jacob was left scared by his dream so much as awestruck. Nevertheless, there's at least a possibility here that something really had left Jacob frightened.
We should also pay attention to the imagery of the dream. You might expect that angels would descend from a heavenly portal, and then, once they'd achieved whatever it is that they'd come down for, they'd go back up. Down first. Up second. But these angels ascend the ladder first, and only then do they descend.
Where do these angels come from? And why do they go back down the ladder, after returning to the heavens?
Time for a Midrash. It says:
Rabbi Samuel son of Nachman said, "These [angels signify] the nations of the world" ... The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Jacob the ministering angel of Babylon rise up seventy rungs [of the ladder] and descend. [The ministering angel] of Media [rise up] fifty-two rungs and descend. And [the ministering angel] of Greece [rise up] a hundred rungs, and descend. And [the ministering angel] of Rome, [Jacob saw him] ascend and ascend and [Jacob] didn't know how many [rungs the angel of Rome would climb]. At that moment, Jacob, our father, was afraid, and he said, "maybe this one has no descent." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Jacob], "And you shall not fear, Jacob my servant" and "be not dismayed, oh Israel" (Jeremiah 30:10). Even if you see him, so to speak, rise all the way up to me, from there I will cause him to descend. As it is written (Obadiah 1:4), "Should you rise like an eagle, and place your nest between the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the LORD."
Our Midrash echoes the words of the Bible: "He was afraid, and he said...". Placing those words within the dream itself. Jacob had, indeed, seen something scary. He had seen the rise of four great empires that would seek to destroy the Jewish people. This explains why the angels start on the ground. They were symbolizing the rise of these civilizations.
The empire that ruled over Rabbi Samuel, the author of our Midrash, was Rome; an empire that seemed to rise and rise; an empire that destroyed the second Temple and persecuted the Jews. We could legitimately fear: would they ever fall, would the oppression ever cease?
Earlier in the book of Genesis, God had made a covenant with Abraham. He was promised a large nation, a land, and more. But, in the process of sealing that covenant, Abraham was given a terrifying prophetic glimpse of the national tragedies that would befall his people before they receive the full promise of the covenant (Genesis 15:12-18). Accordingly, the Rabbis here imagine that the promises in Jacob's dream must have come along with a terrifying vision of the bad times that would befall us first.
And thus, in one fell swoop, the Midrash links Jacob's dream to Abraham's vision, it explains why these angels start on the ground, and why they then descend, and it explains why Jacob's sense of awe was tinged with a residue of fear.
But the Midrash continues. In so doing, it asks a charming question. Why didn't Jacob, in the dream, try to climb the ladder?
Rabbi Samuel son of Yosina used to expand on the verse, "Nevertheless they continued to sin, and didn't have faith in [God]'s wonders" (Psalms 78:32). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Jacob], if you had climbed the ladder, and had faith, you would never have had a descent. But because you didn't have faith, behold, your descendants will be subjugated by all four of these empires, in this world, by taxes, oppression, and exiles.
Jacob was presented, in his dream, with a rare opportunity: a ladder straight up to heaven. But, in the language of the Palsms, he "Nevertheless continued to sin". What was his sin? His sin was not to climb the ladder; not to seize the opportunity. His failure to climb the ladder was sinful because it reflected a lack of "faith in God's wonders".
Last week, I suggested that Isaac had his doubts about Jacob. Jacob was a mild-mannered young man who was pure of heart. But did he have what it takes to lead a people? Would his purity be his undoing? The ladder, in this dream, according to this Midrash, represents the world of politics and statecraft. Jacob knows that he can't get involved without getting his hands dirty. He sees every nation try to rise up, and he sees every nation fall. He'd rather stay, with his untainted purity, on the ground. But this, we are told, constitutes a lack of faith.
I think of this Midrash when I consider the reaction of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism to the project of Zionism. The pious mindset wants no part in statecraft or the stench that it leaves on one's hands. But, I would respond: if a ladder to the heavens appears in front of you, should a fear of falling, a fear of getting one's hand dirty, or an ideological purity, stop you from trying to ascend?
In fact, and as we shall discuss next week, sometimes we are required to get our hands dirty. Sometimes, doing the right thing, can leave something of a taint behind. The right thing to do is sometimes damaging to our purity. And so Jacob wakes up afraid. He knows that he's been promised wonderful things, but he knows that there's a long journey ahead, that other nations will rise and fall before we learn that we have to take the opportunities that come our way. And perhaps he remains afraid of our getting our hands dirty too, as we climb.
Jacob was reluctant to deceive his father. His mother had to prod him. And, according to our Midrash, he was reluctant in this dream too. And yet, what if Isaac had gone with Esau? I would rather have a leader whose personal integrity renders him or her reluctant to climb the greasy pole of power than a leader who revels in the grease. And I would rather a Zionism that's aware of the stench that comes with statecraft, and tries its hardest to climb the ladder with that recognition in mind; a Zionism that seeks to ameliorate the harm that politics almost inevitably creates without, on the one hand, abandoning the project, or, on the other hand, reveling in the power and the glory that intoxicated Babylon, Media, Greece, and Rome.
One doesn't have to look deep into Israeli history to see how power tends to come with corruption. Jacob was right to be afraid. Even the Ultra-Orthodox communities that held out against Zionism because of an ideological purity, eventually ended up (on the whole) embracing the project (half-heartedly), and their political leaders have soiled their hands in the grease of corruption just as often as anyone else. Does political involvement have to come at such a cost? Does the desire for sovereignty have to come along with militarism? Does the desire for self-determination have to come along with xenophobia? These questions should leave us scared. But that doesn't mean we should abandon the ladder to heaven; give up on our dreams, or sacrifice our rights. Instead we should tread, but tread carefully.
One more thought. I have had the honor to know a number of saintly people. They have given me a sense of the transformative power of lived religion. They have shown me that religion can be a ladder that takes them to heaven, and brings something of heaven back down to earth.
But all too often we see people who, in the name of religion, do terrible things. Or, we see people who pose as religious leaders, and occupy positions of religious authority, only to abuse their power and leave devastation, heartbreak, and pain, in their wake. All of this could leave a pure-hearted person to despair of religion itself.
Jacob sees a ladder. Perhaps that ladder could signify religion. But Jacob doesn't want to engage with it. He sees how corrosive it can be. He sees angels rise - or they certainly looked like angels as they rose - but then he sees them fall. And yet, at the end of the day, like Jacob, we still have a ladder before us, and despite having its feet in the earth, this religion really can lead a person to heaven, so long as they have faith in the wonders of God. And we are called upon to climb.