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Judaism: The Stairway to Heaven

On his way to Haran, he dreams of angels. On the way back, he gets G-d's blessing.
Published: Thursday, November 07, 2013 6:03 PM



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Jacob & his family leave Haran, by Charles Foster, 1897
The title of the sidra is “And he left”. At the start of the reading, Jacob leaves his parental home to escape Esau and lives with Laban for twenty years. The story in (Gen.31)  is that Jacob and his family left Laban and directed their steps elsewhere. The question is why Jacob left.

We would have expected that it would have been because God wanted him to do so. Think back just a few weeks to the portion of Lech L’cha where the Almighty tells Abraham to leave his homeland, and the patriarch obeys without question because a righteous person never puts his own advantage first.

Here it seems that Jacob’s motivation was not heavenly but earthly. Life with Laban was never easy and now it has become quite unbearable. True, when he tells his wives and family all this he does tack on a night-time dream in which God told him he could not stay, but the primary motive seems to be considerations of self.

Amongst the possible explanations we might suggest that though as a tzaddik Jacob is always guided by God, he cannot necessarily expect his wives and children to share (at least not yet) his own high level of belief and spirituality, and he needs to tailor his words to the thinking and priorities of his family. In that sense Jacob is acting the diplomat, achieving the same ends but carrying others with him for their own reasons of self-interest.

Another possibility is that having worked out in his own mind the need for departure, the patriarch has a restless night worrying about whether God would approve his project. Some time before dawn comes the response, “Go!” We presume that God could have said instead, “Live with your problem where you are! Stay put!” If this had been the Divine command, Jacob would have had no alternative but to remain and suffer.

In a sense it’s a parable of Jewish history – a dialogue that must often have occurred to the Jewish people when they were in agony and wanted out, and their reading of God’s will was to stay where they were and try and rise above their worries.


THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

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One of the most beautiful word-pictures we find in Biblical literature is Jacob’s dream of a ladder or stairway joining earth and heaven (Gen. 28:12).

The rabbinic sages say that the stairway is Sinai. The way to live in both worlds, mundane and spiritual, is to be a Moses-like messenger ascending and descending the mountain, seeking the Divine message and coming back on earth to apply it as a way of life.

Not only does this notion explain the imagery but it answers the question of why the angels in the story olim v’yor’dim bo, “were going up and down”. If the story had been written from the angels’ point of view, they would have begun by descending from their heavenly habitat, but the story is not for angels but for human beings.

As SM Lehrman, a British rabbi of an earlier generation, used to say, man is both earth-bound and at the same time heaven-bent.