In his book, "The View from Jacob's Ladder: One Hundred Midrashim," published by the Jewish Publication Society, physicist/poet David Curzon looks at the "world's best-known dream" as a projection of emotional states. Using both Jewish and non-Jewish literary sources as his reference texts, he finds meaning for various facets of the human experience: Existence, Mercy, Effects, Assent, The Heart, Success, Love, Clean Hands, Sojourn, Connection, Equilibrium, Invitation, Enchantment. We choose a few for this column.

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Genesis 28:12 records what may be the world's best-known dream and, as the Talmud observes (Berakhot 55b), "A dream uninterpreted is a letter unread."

Emotional States

The dream is a projection of Jacob's emotional states. Jacob dreams about going up to heaven, then down in the opposite direction, then up to heaven and then down again, and so on. This is a dream, if there ever was one, of a manic-depressive:

Manic, as it is said in Genesis 29:20, reporting on an extended manic episode:

And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days...

Depressive, as it is said in Genesis 47:8-9:

And Pharaoh said unto Jacob: "How old art thou?"

And Jacob said unto Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of the pilgrimage."


Following the rabbis of the Midrash, who loved puns, do not read only "ascending," but also "assenting." And do not only read "descending," but also "dissenting." As it is said by Dante in the Inferno, Canto iii, lines 58-60; Dante is being shown around hell, and speaks:

After I had recognized some amongst them
I saw and knew the shadow of him who
from cowardice made the great refusal.

Therefore the angels descending represent those individuals who in their lives made the great refusal, the great dissent. And those ascending represent the individuals who in their lives made the great affirmation, the great assent.

 The Heart

As it is said by Yeats in "The Circus Animals' Desertation," a late poem:

I must lie down where all the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

A rag and bone shop in Ireland in the early part of the century was one that sold decomposable material, like old rags and bones, for fertilizer, which is of course spread on the earth. [The shop is "foul" because of the smell.]

Let us decompose or, if you prefer, deconstruct Yeats' couplet in order to show its applicability to Jacob's dream:

I must lie down, as it is said (Genesis 28:11) "and he lay down in that place to sleep."

where all the ladders start, as it is said "on the earth."

of the heart, as it is said (Deuteronomy 8:2) "to know what was in your heart."

Therefore the ladder is a projection of what is in the heart, and the angels are the feelings, the emotions, that are in the heart, that in some cases raise us up toward our aspirations and in other cases drag us down in the other direction.

Jacob's dream is a dream of the vicissitudes of the heart.


As it is said (Psalm 139:8):

If I ascend into heaven, Thou art there;
If I make my bed in the netherworld, behold, Thou
art there.

So the dream teaches us that in both our ascents and descents we are in the same circumstances, that even in our descents we are still on a ladder connecting our heaven and earth: we are still in contact with whatever permitted us to ascend.


As it is said in Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 23:2

The Holy One said: "Jacob, climb thou also"... But Jacob...did not climb up.

The consequences of such passive refusal are to be understood in the light of the following lines from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, IV, iii, 49-53):

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

"Omitted" is a passive refusal. This teaches us that if we are ever invited to ascend some Jacob's ladder, we should accept.


And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
This dream is to be understood in the light of the following line from one of Yeats' last poems:

It was the dream itself enchanted me.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, David Curzon has lived in NYC for the past twenty years. He holds BS in physics and doctorate in economics; is currently Chief of the Central Evaluation Unit of the United Nations. Curzon has edited and written several collections of midrashim and poems on the Bible (Modern Poems on the Bible, JPS 1994) and is a frequent contributor to literary journals.
Behold the angels on Jacob's ladder: Guides, kingdoms and emotions



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend