Torah from Around the World #91


Rabbi Howard Cooper

, Director of Spiritual

Finchley Reform

, London, UK

Dream and the Inner Journey

If, as the poet Stephen Spender observed,
“the language of a nation, embodied in its literature, is its spiritual life”,
then the twelve verses that contain the dream of the patriarch Jacob (Genesis
28:10-22) offer us a microcosm of Jewish spirituality. The text contains a
portrait – both intimate and transcendent – of how divinity makes itself present
in the world and within the human psyche. It’s the jewel in the crown of
Biblical storytelling.

Jacob, like other heroes from mythic
literature (Jason, Ulysses, and Parsifal), is seen setting out on a specific
journey: he leaves Beersheva, and seems to have a destination in mind – Haran
(Genesis 28:10). But geographical journeys can metamorphose into journeys of a
different kind: inner journeys that depend upon who – or what – we chance to
meet along the way.

“And he lighted upon/he happened upon/ he came
upon by chance –


– the place…” (Genesis 28:11). “Coincidence is
not a kosher word”, that wily storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer once remarked,
intuiting that from a Jewish religious perspective ‘chance’ is never what it
seems. Jacob chanced upon ‘the place’ – and three times in the verse our
narrator emphasizes this ‘place’. It’s not just any place, but ‘the place’
where the Eternal will reveal itself.

Traditional commentators wanted to identify
the location of this ‘place’. Rashi suggests it was Mt. Moriah, i.e.,
Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of the world; others, basing themselves on the
‘chance’ equivalence in numerical value of the Hebrew letters for ‘ladder’ and
‘Sinai’, suggest that Jacob’s encounter with the divine occurs at that later-to-become-famous
mountain of collective revelation. But a Hasidic interpretation moves us from
geography to metaphysics: the thrice-repeated makom of verse 11 refers, it is
suggested, to a meeting with


– which is one of the rabbinic
names for God. ‘God is the place of the world’, said the rabbis, ‘but’ – and
here is a paradox – ‘the world is not God’s place.’ (

Genesis Rabbah




So ‘happening upon’ God can take place
anywhere, at any time. But it happened to Jacob only when he moved away from
home and family, from the known, the secure, the everyday. The text tells us
that he lay down to sleep “because the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). The detail
seems superfluous until we realize that when the sun next rises it is twenty
years later, when Jacob wrestles with the stranger at the river Jabbok and we
read “And the sun rose upon him at Penuel” (Genesis 32:32). So we are in the
hands of a narrator who wants us to read symbolically and not only literally.
Jacob spends 20 years ‘in the dark’ – he runs away from his brother’s anger,
having stolen the blessing from Esau. He is the trickster, the ‘heel’ (it’s the
root of his name,


) – and he is running from the ‘dark’ side of
himself, gaining much in the material world (along with two wives), but still
on the run from much unfinished business at home and within himself.

After the wrestling scene – where a blessing
emerges and his name is transformed to ‘


’, ‘the one who struggles
with, and on behalf of, the divine’ – he re-meets Esau, and peace (of a sort)
is made. But until then it’s one long night, during which he must struggle both
with the deceiver in himself and with the meanings of the dream-vision he
receives at the beginning of that long night of the soul.

And what a dream it is! Verbs in the past
tense give way to participles and the immediacy of the present moment and we
are in the dream:

“And behold: a ladder standing towards the
earth and its top reaching towards the heavens

And behold: the messengers of the divine
ascending and descending on it

And behold:


standing beside
it…” (verses 12-13)

Inside the dream time stands still. The
worlds of heaven and earth are held together in one numinous image: a ladder
hovers between the two domains; it is – surprisingly – suspended between the
two realms, it is standing not on the ground but towards the ground (


and its top is reaching


heaven (


). It
floats – like us – between earthboundedness and heavenly aspiration.

Then: all is in movement, in flux, the


messengers of divinity, ascending and descending, heaven and earth are
interrelated, energy is moving constantly between them, the boundaries are
fluid, between ‘here’ and ‘there’ there is ceaseless movement, a continuously
flowing interchange: the medium of the


represents the message,
the spiritual (and psychological) truth – everything is connected to everything

And the third, consummating component
presents itself in the dream space: the ladder which is standing, and the
messengers of God which are moving, merge into the Eternal who is standing


– ‘beside him’, ‘above him’. But also ‘beside it’ or ‘above it’ (the
ladder). The Hebrew is delightfully ambiguous throughout these dream verses. We
are being nudged away from literalism towards the multiplicity of being.

Similarly with


: is it the
‘top’ of the ladder reaching towards heaven? Or ‘his head’ reaching
heavenwards? And the movement of the messengers/angels is described as
ascending and descending


– ‘on it’ (the ladder). But this pronoun
also means ‘in him’ or ‘within him’. The language is both internally and
externally referential. Like a Cubist painting that juxtaposes two competing
perspectives of the same face to create a new possibility of perception, so our
text keeps presenting this double perspective around which our attention must
constantly hover.

Whether we think of the earthly and the
divine, the material and the spiritual, inner and outer reality, consciousness
and the unconscious, our narrator subverts our normal dualistic thinking. No
wonder Jacob is filled with awe when he wakes – what has been revealed to him
is a spiritual truth that takes a lifetime to comprehend: the divine is always
present – ‘I am with you’ (Genesis 28:15). The Jewish task is to bring that
awareness fully into the world. That’s what it means to be a ‘blessing’
(Genesis 28:14) to all humanity.




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