The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayetse--5758 (1997)
The Meaning of Jacob's Dream
Rabbai Jacob Charlap
Department of Talmud
"He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him [or 'upon it']" (Gen. 28:12-13).
The vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending it has been discussed at length by commentators in an attempt to understand its significance. Among the questions asked are: What was the purpose of the dream? To whom does "angels of God" refer? What does "going up and down" signify? Was "the Lord standing beside Jacob, or upon the ladder?
A well-known interpretation is that of the Tanhumah (Va-Yetze, 2), which views the ladder as signifying the history of mankind, its rungs representing the kingdoms that ruled the earth, one succeeding another.
Another interpretation is found in Genesis Rabbah (68,12 [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, II, p.627] ) and cited by Rashi, namely, that the ladder stood on the boundary between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora: "The angels who escorted him in the Land of Israel do not leave the Land but ascend to Heaven, and angels whose domain is outside of Israel descend to accompany him [further]."
A different viewpoint interprets Jacob's ladder as the ascendancy to spiritual elevation. We shall focus on two other interpretations in this vein, one by Maimonides, and the other, a mystic approach taken by some kabbalists, hassidim and other commentators.
According to Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, I.15), the purpose of the ladder is to explain the relationship between two realities, between existence on earth and existence in the "world of heavenly spheres," both of which are set in motion by God. Jacob sees "angels of God" on the ladder. Those "going up and down on it" are the prophets who, from studying the ladder--the connection between the two worlds, i.e., God's providence--are elevated to a higher, heavenly level of understanding. That is why it says "going up and down"; first they ascend and become inspired, then they descend and transmit the understanding they acquired to the world. In addition, "God stands on it," e.g., on the "ladder"; this means God is there constantly, as the Prime Mover, the Cause that governs and is providence over all. According to Maimonides, the dream is a representation of the two worlds, and Jacob, as the person who contemplates the ladder, e.g., the connection between the worlds, attains an understanding of God and of His ways in our world. In the words of Maimonides(Guide, I.15, trans. S. Pines, Chicago, 1963, p.41):
Moreover, he wrote (Guide, II.38), "Therefore one ought not to pay attention to one whose rational faculty has not become perfect and who has not attained the ultimate term of speculative perfection. For only one who achieves speculative perfection is able to apprehend other objects of knowledge when there is an overflow of the divine intellect toward him. It is he who is in true reality a prophet. This is explicitly stated: 'And the prophet [possesseth] a heart of wisdom(Ps.90:12).' It says here that one who is a prophet in true reality has 'a heart of wisdom.'"
Thus, the dream teaches Man to attain an understanding of the Deity and to reach the level of prophecy.
A different interpretation of the ladder follows from the commentaries of the great hassidic leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Hayyim of Volozhin, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon. According to their approaches, the ladder symbolized the stages by which a person ascends in spirituality. The ladder has "angels of God going up and down on it", because the entire universe, including the angels, ascends and descends along the rungs by which human beings ascend and descend, and in their wake. That is to say, everything depends on human deeds, ascending as mankind ascends, and descending as mankind descends. As R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady wrote in Likkutei Torah (Numbers, Naso 2):
Likewise, in Nefesh Ha-Hayyim (I.19), R. Hayyim of Volozhin interpreted an idea of the Zohar as follows:
According to these interpretations, the dream teaches us Man's centrality in the universe, his responsibility to all God's creatures, and the total dependence of everything, including celestial beings, on humans and their deeds. Although R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Hayyim of Volozhin represent different schools of Jewish thought, both were influenced by mysticism and both indicate that they viewed human beings as superior even to the angels.
This approach is a matter of dispute among the classic Jewish philosophers and exegetes. Some commentators follow the ideas set forth in various sayings of the Sages, that the world was created for man, and that human beings are the focal point of creation. Others take issue with this approach and do not see man as the ultimate in Creation. Both of these approaches are reflected by Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Exodus 23:20: "I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way..."
Maimonides takes a similar approach to Ibn Ezra, as we see in HilkhotYesodei ha-Torah (4.12):
Likewise in Guide of the Perplexed (III.13):
The other view, that man is the quintessential creature, also finds expression in the works of one of the greatest kabbalists, R. Meir ben Gabbai. In Avodat Ha-kodesh (Part 3, "The End Purpose," chs. 3-10) he wrote:
The Maharal of Prague also takes this approach (see ch. 4 of his book, Tiferet Yisrael): "The second part is man ... who is in his own right not included in a class with other beings, since everything was created for man. Man reigns, bringing to perfection all earthly beings, for all were created to serve and assist man."
In other words, man is the object of creation, and the perfection of all beings depends on his deeds. Further, Maharal believes that not only earthly beings are dependent on man, but also heavenly forces, as we read in ch. 12:
In the light of these two points of view, we can now understand the differences between the two interpretations presented at the outset. Given Maimonides' view in Guide of the Perplexed, that man is not the center of the universe, but that everything including man was created and given its own particular role, one could not explain Jacob's dream as signifying that the entire universe depends on the actions of man, as the other commentators did. For, according to their approach, Jacob's dream lends expression to man's centrality, even his superiority, everything depending on him. However, in all the views which we presented here, the role of man is to strive constantly for greater heights, step by step, as understood by R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady, based on Zechariah 3:7, "I will permit you to move about among these attendants": "Man is referred to as moving about, not standing as an attendant, indicating that man must progress from rung to rung, and not stand on the same rung forever" (Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, Part 2, Hinnukh Katan).
 Also see the introduction to Guide for the Perplexed, s.v. Omnam dimyon, and ibid., Part II, 10, where this subject is explained in a variety of ways.
 A similar view was expounded by his teacher, R. Dov Baer of Mezhirech, in the book, Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov, 79.
 Cf. also Ibn Ezra's commentary on Gen. 1:1: "Give no heed to the words of the Gaon that man is nobler than the angels..." On the identity of the "Gaon," (possibly R. Saadiah Gaon), see Karnei Or commentary, 14.
 Cf. Maimonides' views in his preface to the Mishnah, indicating that man is the ultimate purpose of the universe.
 Cf. also what Maharal has to say in Gevurot Hashem, chs. 66-69.
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