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Torah Commentary
Vayeitzei (November 9, 2013)

Missy Bell,
Program Director
of Youth Learning and Engagement

THERE IS SO MUCH HAPPENING in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei. We begin with Jacob departing from his parents’ home because he has been instructed to find a wife — one of the daughters of Laban, his mother Rebecca’s brother. Jacob has an eventful journey, encountering God on his way.

When Jacob arrives at Laban’s household, one of the first people he sees is Laban’s daughter, Rachel, with whom he instantly falls in love. Jacob makes a deal to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. However, Laban deceives Jacob and sends Leah to marry Jacob in Rachel’s place. Then, Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven more years in order to marry Rachel. With his two wives and their two maidservants, Jacob becomes the father of 11 sons and a daughter. (His 12th son, Benjamin, is born in a later portion.)

After 20 years of working for Laban, Jacob decides that it is time for him and his family to return to Canaan. Jacob and Laban agree that Jacob will take some of Laban’s flock as his wages. Jacob, Rachel, Leah and all of their children and the livestock set off on their journey, but just before they leave, Rachel steals an idol from her father. Laban follows after them to find his stolen idol, but no one — not even Jacob — knows that it was Rachel who stole it. No one finds the idol, and Jacob and Laban make a pact to leave each other in peace at the end of the portion.

At the very beginning of the portion, during Jacob’s journey from Canaan to Haran, where Laban lives, Jacob has a dream that is one of the most well-known parts of this Torah portion: “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. And the Lord was standing beside him.” (Genesis 28:12-13) Commentators and scholars have so much to say about what Jacob’s dream meant.

Rashi and Genesis Rabbah tell us that the ladder represented the boundary at the edge of Israel. According to this midrash, there are angels who belong in Israel and angels who belong outside of Israel. The angels belonging in Israel had escorted Jacob as far as they could and now were going up the ladder. The angels belonging outside of Israel were coming down the ladder in order to escort Jacob on the rest of his journey.

Maimonides has a different interpretation of the symbols in Jacob’s dream. Maimonides also thinks that the ladder connects earth and heaven but in a different way from the midrash. Maimonides tells us in The Guide for the Perplexed that the angels go up the ladder to get divine inspiration from God in heaven and then go down the ladder to give that inspiration to humans on earth. Jacob, by having this dream, receives some of this divine inspiration from the angels and attains a deeper understanding of God and God’s role in the world than most people have.

Ibn Ezra has a third idea about the purpose of the angels that are going up and down the ladder. According to Ibn Ezra, the angels going up the ladder are informing God of what is happening on earth. The angels who are descending have a different mission: to enact God’s will on earth.

These are just a few of the interpretations of Jacob’s dream. How would you interpret Jacob’s dream? What do you think the angels were doing?

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

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