The English poet Stephen Spender once remarked that “the language of a nation, embodied in its literature, is its spiritual life”. I think about these words each time we arrive - during the annual cycle of Torah readings - at the text that describes Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-22). When it sometimes can feel that we live in an increasingly disordered and fragmented world, the twelve verses of this Hebrew text offer us a glimpse into another world: a world where meaning hovers within language, where we can rest for a moment secure in the knowledge that we are being held in the embrace of a consummate storyteller, a narrator who is able to conjure up a vision of eternity - of the ‘intersection of the timeless/ With time’ (T.S.Eliot) – just by placing one word artfully next to another. For me, it’s the jewel in the crown of Biblical storytelling.
It is of course – as are so many mythological narratives – a story about a journey. Our ‘hero’ – who we know is no hero - is seen setting out with purpose. He leaves Beersheva, and seems to have a destination in mind: Haran (verse 10). But we know – both because we have read our world’s mythic literature (Jason, Ulysses, Parsifal), and because we have lived long enough to discover that things rarely turn out as we intend – that 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 no sooner has the journey begun than ‘chance’ does indeed turn up. ‘And he lighted upon/he happened upon/ he came upon by chance – va’yifgah – the place…’ (v.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 – being somewhat literal minded on occasions - wanted to identify the location of this ‘place’. Rashi suggests it was Mount Moriah - i.e. Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of the world, as it were. 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 Ha-Makom – which is one of the rabbinic names for God. ‘God is the place of the world’, said the rabbis, ‘but’ – and here’s a paradox – ‘the world is not God’s place.’ (Genesis Rabbah, Va’yetze, 68:9)
What this story hints at – no, more than hints at, what it quietly and subversively suggests – is that ‘happening upon’ God can take place anywhere, at any time. But what the story also dramatizes is that it happened to Jacob only when he moved away from home, from the familiar (and from his family), from the known, the secure, the everyday.
The text tells us that he lay down to sleep ‘because the sun had set’ (v.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’ (32:32). So we know that 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 a blessing from Esau. He is the trickster, the ‘heel’ (it’s the root of his name, Ya’akov) – 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.
We sense how the psychological is woven seamlessly into the narrative – and we sense too how impoverished we might be in separating out the strands of our own lives into ‘psychological’ and ‘spiritual’ and ‘emotional’ and ‘mental’, rather than marvelling at the boundryless superfluity of being that exists within us.
After the wrestling scene - where a blessing emerges and Jacob’s name is transformed to ‘ Yisrael’ , ‘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: Adonai standing beside it…’ (verses12-13)
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 – perhaps surprisingly - suspended between the two realms, it is standing not on the ground but towards the ground (artza) and its top is reaching towards heaven (hashamaima). It floats – like us – between earthboundedness and heavenly aspiration.
Then: all is in movement, in flux, the mal’akhim, 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 mal’akhim represents the message, the spiritual (and psychological) truth - everything is connected to everything else.
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 [YHVH] who is standing alav – ‘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 v’rosho: 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 bo – ‘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 – all those binary opposites with which we normally wrap/warp our minds – within this dream imagery our narrator subverts our normal dualistic thinking. And that’s before we even reach the verbal component of the dream…
No wonder Jacob is filled with awe when he awakes: what has been revealed to him is a spiritual truth that takes a lifetime to comprehend and explore and, hopefully, remain baffled by: the divine is always present – ‘I am with you’ (v.15).