receiving his father's blessing, Jacob sets out to his relatives in Haran (where
he will fall in love and serve a master with uncertain wages). In Jacob's famous
dream (his first encounter with God), God's master plan is revealed to him:
A stairway/ladder is set on the ground, its top reached to the sky; angels of
God are ascending and descending. And the Lord, standing beside him, says: "I
am the Lord the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground
on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants
shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the
east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless
themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect
you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you
until I have done what I have promised you."
The interpretations are many, and we share here three.
One midrash proposes that the ascending and descending angels represent those
that were leaving Jacob as he left the Land of Israel and those who would accompany
him outside the Land. Creating relevancy
to realities of today, philosopher Mordechai Kaplan comments that Jews clearly
have different concerns and priorities outside the Land of Israel than they
when living inside it, and so need a different sort of protection, different
types of "angels" to guide them.
According to another midrash, the angels represent the four kingdoms among whom
the Jewish people were to be exiled; Jacob represents the people Israel, and
his dream is a glimpse into its future. The Holy One shows Jacob the angelic
princes of the four kingdoms Babylonia, Media,
Greece and Rome to where the Jewish people were
to be exiled, kingdoms that would rise in power but eventually fall. (The angel
of Babylon mounts 70 rounds, the angel of Media 52 rounds, that of Greece 180,
and that of Edom or Rome mounts highest of all "above the heights of the
When God reveals his master
plan after Jacob's vision of ascending and descending angels, suggests R. Simeon
ben Lakish in the midrash, He has come to comfort the frightened Jacob: "Were
it not expressly stated in Scripture, we would not dare suggest that when God
[comes to protect Israel], he comes as close to them as a man fanning his son."
R. Abbahu adds: "God's presence in that dream may be illustrated by the
parable of an infant prince who was sleeping in his cradle when flies were settling
upon him. The moment his wet nurse came by and bent over him, they fled. So,
too, at first 'Behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it"
(Genesis 28:12). but the moment the Holy One revealed Himself hovering over
Jacob, they fled." Rephrasing this in contemporary language, we might say
that God reassures Jacob that the scary monsters in his dream will eventually
Poet/philosopher David Curzon shares another insight that helps us "climb
above the mundane from time to time and bring back with us this angelic perspective
when we descend again into our daily lives." The angels, he writes, represent
our emotions "that in some cases raise us up toward our aspirations and
in other cases drag us down in the other direction. The ladder is a projection
of what is in the heart, and the angels are the feelings, the emotions, that
are in the heart, Jacob's dream is a dream of the vicissitudes of the heart."
The angels represent a spectrum of complex human emotion
success, love, enchantment, connection, sojourn, mercy, assent
in which one must struggle to obtain and maintain balance and equilibrium.
Genesis 28:10-15 [back]
 Genesis Rabbah 68:12 [back]
Genesis Rabbah 68:6, 68:10-11; BT Hulin 91b [back]
 David Curzon, The View from Jacob's Ladder
One Hundred Midrashim (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
1966), pp. 44-52.
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