by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ya’akov’s Ladder Dream
R. Arama thinks the famous ladder of Ya’akov’s dream symbolizes reality, the link between the physical and the heavenly, the vehicle of Hashem’s influence descending to Earth’s inhabitants. For him, the angels in the dream were great people, whose thoughts and musings have them reach upwards, step by step, to where Hashem resides. The ladder represents the knowledge Nature can give, what Rambam and others called ma’aseh Bereshit, what Aristotle called physics (in contrast to metaphysics).
At the top, where Hashem stood (in the dream), they receive prophecy, knowledge they never would have achieved by intellect alone. Bereshit Rabbah 68 cites a view comparing the numerology (gematria) of Sinai and Sulam (both 130), telling R. Arama the dream gave Ya’akov Avinu the same experience of Hashem as the Jewish people would have at Sinai.
The dream made clear to Ya’akov an idea he would never have imagined on his own, he was lying on a place worthy of a House for Hashem’s eternal Presence (he quotes several Midrashim linking objects in the dream to parts of the Temple, and/or equating the physical earthly House with the heavenly one. The combination of the two Midrashic ideas, the ladder and Sinai have the same numerological value and elements of the dream pointed to parts of the Bet HaMikdash seem to me to fit well with Ramban’s idea Hashem wanted the Jews to build a Mishkan and later Mikdash precisely to serve as a host for the Presence from Sinai, linking Sinai to Temple. R. Arama does not mention it.)
Providence in Exile
Hashem promises Ya’akov his descendants will multiply and spread out, telling R. Arama Hashem was going beyong what had been promised to Avraham and Yitzhak, guaranteeing Providence, Hashem’s continuing Presence and protection for Ya’akov and his descendants, with eventual return to the land, regardless of how far they spread or scatter. It has to be so, he says, because Hashem assures Ya’akov He will be with him, and protect him until Hashem fulfills all Hashem just promised.
Until Jews return to Israel, he was telling his audience, this passage, the promises of this dream, have not come true.
Hashem also speaks most directly about the land on which Ya’akov is lying, teaching Ya’akov (and us) it was the essential part of the Land, why he awoke to assume the House of Gd should go right there.
The verse tells us va-yira, awe or fear R. Arama attributes to the experience of being forced to accept a truth one’s intellect would never have found. Ya’akov knew he had to accept it (a reminder, I think, real prophecy cannot be doubted, is so clearly true no room is left for avoidance or denial), while he also could not reject the intellectual truths he had known up until then.
The fear comes from the delicate path he had to tread, to recognize the place was a Bet Elokim, a House of Gd, without it contradicting the impossibility of a house of Gd. It was a House in the sense of being the best place for seekers to find truths about Hashem, to come to accept Hashem’s providential supervision of the world, ideas that qualify as a House without running afoul of the accurate philosophical problems with thinking Hashem needs or lives in a house.
Ya’akov’s Troubling Promise
Aside from his declared recognition of the significance of the place, Ya’akov makes promises that seem to doubt Hashem’s assurance of protection. Ya’akov conditions his commitment (itself a problem, given the necessity of serving Hashem regardless of what Hashem does or does not do for us) on Hashem’s being with him in Haran. Nor does he display the kind of confidence we would have expected, the verses at the beginning of Va-Yishlah telling us he was very afraid of his encounter with Esav.
Worse, as he prays for help with Esav, he does not refer back to Hashem’s promises here—he points out Hashem had told him, at the end of Va-Yetze, to return to Canaan, but not the blanket protection extended in the ladder dream. (Ya’akov does speak of Hashem’s having said hetev etiv imakh, I will do good by you; as R. Arama notes, Rashi reads it as meaning Hashem’s promise to Avraham about his descendants.)
Last, Ya’akov makes a vow here he seems uncomfortably lax about fulfilling– Hashem has to remind him of the vow at the end of his twenty years in Haran, and then again after the incident at Shekhem. Only then does Ya’akov tell his family it’s time to go to Bet El to fulfill the vow. R. Arama expects more from a man of Ya’akov’s stature.
The Uncertainty of Dreams
To R. Arama, the answer lies in Ya’akov’s unreadiness for prophecy. Nedarim 38a tells us a prophet must be wise, strong, and wealthy; were Ya’akov all those, he would not need to flee his father’s house, nor to pray for Hashem to give him food and clothing, as he does here [R. Arama takes strength and wealth literally, as does Ran in his Derashot; Rambam thought they referred to attitudes rather than facts of one’s material circumstances.]
The dream was close to a prophecy, but still a dream. As proof, Ya’akov does not realize it is a prophecy even after waking up. Par’oh recognizes the dreams Yosef interprets for him as important when he awoke, as did Shlomo Ha-Melekh after his first dream encounter with Hashem. Rambam in the Guide insists those were not prophecies, and Ya’akov’s experience seems a step below theirs, because he never confirms the dream as a sort of revelation; he says “akhen yesh Hashem, indeed, Hashem is in this place,” without ever articulating it had been a moment of revelation.
Prophets generally know what they’ve seen, with some exceptions. R. Arama says Shemu’el mistakes his first prophecy for the High Priest Eli’s voice only because it was his first [it’s an important point, because Rambam claimed prophecy was unmistakable for anything else, seemingly ignoring the verses about the young Shemu’el. R. Arama adds one specific occasion a prophet can err, a delicate point, because the possibility of mistakes in prophecy weakens our trust of Scripture. Let’s watch him navigate it.]
He points to Yirmiyahu 32 as another example, where Yirmiyahu seems to say he onoly later realized Hashem had told him in advance his cousin would come to sell him some ancestral property. (Not his first prophecy, a problem R. Arama does not address.)
R. Arama thinks enough in the dream told Ya’akov it was coming from Hashem for him to wake up and feel the extra connection in that place, then to make conditional promises (the conditions no longer bother R. Arama, because Ya’akov is not quite sure his dream came from Hashem; it might have been his own intuition speaking, although with more than usual connection to Gd). As elements of the dream, and the promises Hashem made in the dream, came true, Ya’akov would be more and more sure it had been from Hashem and not just an ordinary dream.
The High Bar of Hashem’s Protection
For Ya’akov to be sure the dream was being fulfilled, he would need to lack nothing, is R. Arama’s view of the life experiences of those to whom Hashem is close [I am not going to pause to debate the point; he is about to apply the idea to the Jewish people as a whole, indicating to me he was making a homiletical point to his audience, seeking to convince them they could have better and more certain economic outcomes if they focused more on their relationship with Hashem.]
He takes the model of a husband’s obligations to his wife, interpreting onah (in human terms, physical intimacy) as close and constant connection, ensconced in a House, and therefore obligating Ya’akov and his descendants to bring tithes, to support the House and those who staff it. The process also teaches and reminds people to retain their awareness of Gd, to note all the good in their lives comes from Hashem.
I am skipping the rest of the analogy, to get us back to Ya’akov. When he faces troubles with Esav, we now know R. Arama’s reason for why he does not refer to the dream—he’s not yet sure he has had Hashem’s clear protection, does not yet know whether his own vows need fulfilling. R. Arama goes so far as to say Ya’akov doesn’t know it after Hashem said it to him when sending him back from Haran. True, he now knew Hashem appeared to him, but—in R. Arama’s reading—only fully knew it when Hashem explicitly tells him to return to Bet El.[He thinks Ya’akov then does fully accept this view of the past, tells his kith and kin—I love that phrase—they need to go to Bet El to build an altar to Hashem Who had answered him in all his times of trouble, had been with him all the way. There’s a lot more to the sha’ar, and I don’t want to take R. Arama’s time, but I do feel the need to register one concern. I am very sympathetic to the issue of uncertainty, of how difficult it can be to know what Hashem wants of us in a certain situation. I agree that anything other than prophecy leaves us with possibilities we may not come to see fully until further down the road.
And yet, Ya’akov’s dream is not presented with that kind of uncertainty; while it is a dream rather than a prophecy, Hashem appears, something Rambam took to indicate a higher level than an ordinary dream. The idea Ya’akov Avinu was not sure Hashem had been with him until Hashem explicitly told him to return to Bet El—despite another intervening dream that led him to return to Canaan—seems to me to open too large a can of worms.]
Providence Finds a Home
To R. Arama, the essential lesson Ya’akov took from the dream (eventually) was the value of the place he had slept, the worthiness of establishing a Bet Ha-Mikdash there. It was the culmination of the Patriarchs’ journey to realizing the extent of Providence.
Avraham started the journey from too far away to reach the idea of a House. He had to find his way to Gd’s existence, intellectually, and then slowly learn more and more about Providence (as we have seen in previous she’arim). It takes time and many experiences to learn those lessons.
Yitzhak had learned much by watching his father be told to expel Hagar and Yishma’el, by hearing the story of how Rivka was found for a wife for him, by his time in Pelishtim.
Ya’akov brought it all together, his fight with his brother, and this dream showing him the final pieces to understanding Hashem’s continuing involvement with the world, the concentrated Presence on what we now call the Temple Mount, and the meaning of building a structure of worship there.