Jacob’s dream

Yesterday, we read the Parashat Vayetze which contains the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder rising up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. There are many Rabbinic interpretations of the dream but my favorite among them is the tradition that what Jacob was witnessing was “the changing of the guard” as the angels which accompanied him inside the land of Canaan were going back up to the heavens and those who were going to be responsible for him outside the land were coming down to take their positions.

This is an important interpretation as it reflects the intention of the Torah to teach that God is a universal God and not tied to one particular area. Jacob needs to be shown, as he is on the border of Canaan about to go to Haran, that he will be protected by (and responsible to) God wherever he goes.

It strikes me as a bit troubling however that the angels are referred to as “olim v’yordim”, ascending and descending the ladder. I would have preferred the opposite, “descending and ascending”.¬† Usually when we think about a “changing of the guard”, we envision the new guard coming to replace the old guard with an overlap between them. Whatever it is that they are guarding is never left unprotected, even for a moment. Thus, if the angels were¬† “olim”, ascending, before the others were “yordim” descending, Jacob would have been left alone in the interim.

I promise you I haven’t lost sleep over this linguistic issue (pardon the pun) but it occurs to me as important because we do speak of overlapping angels in another place in our tradition. When we sing Shalom Aleichem on erev Shabbat, we are welcoming in the “Shabbat angels”. The last verse of the song is “tzaytzchem l’shaom”, go in peace. This is sung, according to many interpretations, to the weekday angels who are taking leave of us as the Shabbat angels take their positions. We don’t ask them to leave until the Shabbat angels are already in place.

Whether we take the idea of angels literally or not, the idea is beautiful: that Shabbat overlaps the weekdays, beginning before sundown and ending after sundown. There is an easing into Shabbat and an easing out of Shabbat as well.

But, it is interesting that we never say: “tzaytzchem l’shalom” to the Shabbat angels when Shabbat ends.

Shabbat is a day of ideals and dreams and a sense of holiness. We dream of a day when the world will be “kulo Shabbat” when all that we wish and all that we feel on Shabbat will be permanently a part of our redeemed world. The only way that that can happen is if we take the spirit of Shabbat and allow it to permeate the days of the week. Shabbat is when we dream. The weekdays are when we can put those dreams into action, making them a reality in the world.

We should seek to keep those angels around throughout the week, never allowing them to leave.

3 thoughts on “Jacob’s dream

  1. Laurel Federbush

    Have you heard the theory that the angels were aliens going onto their spaceship? Probably not the interpretation favored by most rabbis…

  2. Liesel Wardle

    Rabbi Dobrusin,
    I’m deeply touched by what you said and your interpretation in regards to Jacobs Dream!
    Oh, if we could only take the holiness and the spirit of Shabbat into the
    following week, accompanied by those wonderful angels, if it only were
    that simple!
    Please know that I’m always looking forward to read your blogs!
    And maybe, in good time, after writing on many subjects, you may even decide to compile all of your blogs and publish your very own book!
    Oops – this was supposed to be an “additional comment” meant for Rabbi Dobrusin, not a reply to Laurel Federbush!

  3. michael

    with regards to the elusive “olim veyordim” one doesn’t really know if it describes DIFFERENT angels at all. as is often the case in hebrew, the im-ending has a rather partitive notion (maim, shamaim etc.). i always departed from the notion that we’re talking about the SAME angels. this makes it rather more elusive but is probably more to the point. the question is the same. angels normally dwell in heaven. so why not ” yordim we olim” when they come down to jacob?
    this blantant physical mistake probably means we’re talking about a dream, about jakob and not about angels. they rise from jacobs head which is testimony to something much more pivotal than angels. his quality as prophet.

Leave a Reply