He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky. (Gen. 28:2)
Jacob’s dream at Bethel is one of the most famous in biblical literature. Although he envisions angels (Hebrew: Malachei Elohim—literally, “messengers of God”), the text makes it clear that they only provide the setting, but that it is God who stands beside him and reiterates the promises made to his grandfather Abraham (Gen. 12:2) and his father, Isaac (Gen. 26:3-4), that his progeny will be prolific and “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” The remainder of the parashah describes the complexities and conflicts that Jacob must work his way through in relation to his father-in-law, Laban, before he can proceed on his journey independently with his wives and children.
Jacob begins his journey in flight before the threats of his brother, Esau. The dream at Bethel changes the momentum of his journey from merely a search for a haven (negative motivation) to a purposeful challenge to make a life ultimately one of blessing. One need not be accused of altering the intent of the narrative to suggest that his discovery that “God stands beside” is but a poetic way of stating that Jacob has discovered a profound purpose to his life—a “dream” to be pursued in order to bring blessing and find meaning in his existence. It is of the same character of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”—a vision of what life ought to embody beyond the pursuit of physical security. Without such dreams, our lives echo William Shakespeare’s famous indictment in Macbeth:51
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
As B’nai Israel, the mystique of our survival is tied to our refusal to abandon our hopes and dreams that no adversity can deter us from fulfilling.