Parashat Vayetze: Self-knowledge as a path to God

How does Jacob discern God’s presence from a dream?

 José de Ribera - Jacob's Dream (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
José de Ribera - Jacob's Dream
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob, running away from home, arises from his dream knowing that God is in that place: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). 

How does Jacob discern God’s presence from a dream?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, the 18th-century hassidic master, teaches that one can only dream of things that have in some way been experienced. Just as today science fiction is an amalgam of things known to us – whether energy or light or material in some sense – so, too, dreams cannot be entirely outside our own ken.

The Apter Rebbe explains that as Jacob had never experienced an angel, upon waking he knew that this dream had come from “beyond” – not the product of his imagination but the result of a Divine vision.

Another explanation is that Jacob saw the angels “descending and ascending the ladder.” He woke up and felt frightened. Perhaps the very idea of descent – that in some way going down must precede going up – reminded Jacob of his own struggles. Having fled his home must have felt like a descent, and to see his own progress reenacted both scared and perhaps encouraged him. Because it reminded him that going up can follow going down. The cogency and power of the message told him that God was communicating through his dream.

What these and similar explanations have in common is that they fit with the hassidic reading of the end of the verse – “v’anochi lo yadati,” usually translated “and I did not know.” It can also be read as “and myself I did not know.” 

There are two fundamental directional religious metaphors – up and in. Think of the mountain, the sky, the heavens – these are the metaphors of ascent. Many of the Psalms begin with “Shir Hama’alot – A song of going up.” Although knowing that God cannot be spatially located, we have some sense that God is “above” us. 

The second metaphor is in. Inward, wrote the poet Novalis, goes the way full of mystery. This is the metaphor not of height but of depth: the heart, the soul, the discovery of divinity by self-exploration. We travel up to the mountain and deep to the soul.

The ladder of Jacob is at first glance an upward metaphor. The angels are on a ladder that reaches to the heavens. Yet when Jacob awakens he is struck by the reality that “myself I did not know” – he does not know himself. How could he? He is young, and this is his first foray away from the home of Isaac and Rebekah. Self-knowledge requires time, experience and, of course, introspection.

Some may look inside themselves and see only mist or murk or confusion. Jacob is young, but he is touched by destiny and gifted with vision; having had such a dream, he comes to understand himself better. He does not yet know of Rachel and Leah; his children are far in the future; his powerful legacy is inchoate. But he senses something of the possibility that the dream promises. There is, as the Apter Rebbe’s interpretation teaches, a reality that he has not begun to grasp or understand but that he prophetically intuits.

In Deuteronomy we learn that the Torah is “not in heaven” (30:12) but, rather, is “in your mouth and in your heart (v. 14).” In other words, the image of above gives way to the internal truth of the Torah’s teaching. Jacob is running from home and on a voyage of discovery. His dream shows him something about himself, and in that self-awareness he finds an intimation of God.

Jacob’s ladder does not only lead to the heavens, but to what is inside of him. Perhaps inspired by Jacob’s vision and realization, Yeats wrote so memorably, thousands of years later: “Now that my ladder’s gone/ I must lay down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.