It’s 8 a.m., and Miriam finally awakens from a deep sleep. She immediately turns to her husband, David, and says, “Oy, darling, what a lovely dream I’ve just had.”
“So tell me already,” asks David. “What dream did you have this time?”
“I dreamed that you gave me a beautiful diamond ring for our wedding anniversary. That’s what I just dreamed.”
“Mazel tov on your dream,” says David.
“So what do you think such a dream means?” asks Miriam. “After all, it’s our anniversary tomorrow.”
“Be patient,” replies David. “Wait until tonight when I get back from work and then you’ll know what it means.”
All day long, Miriam can’t think of anything other than the diamond ring. Finally, David returns home. As soon as he takes off his coat, he hands Miriam a beautifully wrapped package. Excited, Miriam immediately opens it and inside finds a book titled “The Meanings of All Your Dreams.”
Dreams, dreams, the Bible is full of dreams. It seems everyone in the Book of Genesis, starting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the way to Joseph and Pharaoh, has life-altering dreams.
One of the most fascinating dreams in the Torah is the one Jacob has on Mount Moriah (which later becomes the Temple Mount) in the beginning of this parashah (Genesis 28:12). He has more dreams later in the parashah, as well.
The background is that Jacob has left his parents home in Beersheva, in the south of the Holy Land, and is making his way toward Haran (in present-day Turkey), where his uncle Laban lives. He makes this journey to get away from twin brother Esau, who wants his head after Jacob outsmarted him once again. This time, Jacob tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the coveted final blessing meant for Esau. On the way, Jacob stops in Jerusalem at the holy mountain to pray and spend the night.
In his dream he sees a ladder set on the ground reaching all the way to the heavens and angels ascending and descending the ladder. God informs him that the land upon which he is sleeping will be the eternal homeland of his descendants. Although Jacob is now alone and on the run, God will protect him and make his progeny so numerous that they will spread to the four corners of the world.
I’ve often wondered why God communicated this message to Jacob in a dream. The promise of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people had already been given to Abraham and was repeated to all the patriarchs in a straightforward manner. Therefore, what was the meaning behind this dream? Additionally, what is the meaning of the angels in this dream and why are they going up and down the ladder? And finally, angels have wings. Why would they need ladders?
The Kabbalah teaches why so many of the most important stories in the Torah incorporate dreams. It’s because in our dreams the limitations of time and space cease to exist. In our conscious state we would never entertain ideas that contradict the laws of nature, yet when we sleep, part of our soul leaves the body and experiences a higher, truer reality, one in which the finiteness of our lives and the laws of nature don’t exist. In our dream state, anything and everything seems possible: We may enter an angel-like existence where heaven seems so close and the past and the future converge.
The symbolism of the angels on the ladder could only be communicated in a dream, for God was telling Jacob that the destiny of his children was not a natural one. While the Jewish people inhabit a world governed by nature and its limitations, we are ultimately not bound by them. Our feet may be firmly planted on the ground, yet we are connected by a ladder all the way to heaven. Just as angels are God’s emissaries to perform tasks in the world, so too is every soul an angel sent down the ladder from heaven, whose mission and purpose is to connect heaven and earth one rung at a time.
Each mitzvah is another rung on the ladder. Judaism is not one big leap of faith; rather it is about consistently adding one more mitzvah that gradually gets us all the way to the top. Surely as it elevates us, it will eventually transform the world into heaven on earth as well.
Let us all start climbing the stairway to heaven.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.