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Gateway to the Heavens

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, relates the famous prophetic dream by Jacob. In that dream Jacob sees a ladder extending from the ground to the heavens. Angels are ascending and descending. However, prior to his dream we are informed that Jacob took some stones and placed them under his head. When he awoke from his sleep, he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” The Torah then tells us that Jacob took the stone he had placed his head on, set it up as a monument, and anointed it with oil. (Bereisheit 28: 11-12, 16-18)

This account by the Torah is rich in visual description. Moreover, it presents us with several questions. Among those questions are: what is the meaning of the dream; what does Jacob mean by calling this place “the gateway to the heavens;” what is the point of telling us “stones” under his head became “the stone” under his head; and what is the significance of Jacob anointing the stone with oil?

In order to answer these questions, let’s review some facts. When Jacob embarked on his journey to his uncle Laban’s house, there was great tension in the family. For one thing, Jacob’s brother Esau was extremely angry with him. Jacob, following the secret plan of their mother, Rebecca, received a special blessing from their father, Isaac, that was intended for Esau. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rebecca over heard that Esau promised to kill Jacob after their parents died. At the same time, we are also told that Isaac and Rebecca were very troubled and unhappy with Esau’s wives. They were worried and concerned that Jacob pick a suitable mate and not marry a girl from Canaan, hence their command to Jacob to travel to Padan Aram where Laban live.

These factors, in addition to the normal concerns when traveling wee, no doubt, on Jacob’s mind as well. Rashi tells us the stones that Jacob placed around his head were to protect him from the animals. Rashi quotes the Midrash that the stones were arguing and vying to be the one Jacob would place his head. One can image the restless night Jacob had until he fell asleep. It is natural that a person should feel this way. Human beings have competing emotions and desires all seeking satisfaction. Those that are unfulfilled in the day often take shape a night during a dream.

In Jacob’s dream there is a ladder. A ladder is a tool used to reach something high overhead, something unattainable without climbing up. This ladder is attached to the ground. This image indicates that all man’s desires and instincts originate in the physical world. We are naturally and initially drawn to a physical, material life. However, if we use our mind, we can discover that while we will always be attached to the physical, we can achieve a higher goal. We can begin to direct our energy away from the physical world to the metaphysical world, the world of ideas, symbolized by the ascent of the angels to heaven.

One of the first important breakthroughs we can make in this process is to see that the very physical objects we want do not bring us the enjoyment and endless happiness we are seeking. We learn that they are constructed from marvels ideas that explain how the universe works. As we understand more of these and other ideas and internalize them into our life we ascend into a different realm of existence, one that brings us closer to our Creator.

Going up rungs on the ladder indicates this process. It is not always a straight linear process upwards. Sometimes, there are setbacks indicated by the angels ascending and descending on the ladder. Now while a person will never reach the top of the ladder, the ultimate knowledge of God, not to be involved in the process, that is being somewhere on the ladder, is the greatest tragedy for man.

When Jacob awoke, he took the stone under his head and anointed it. He remarked “this is the gateway to the heavens.” The Torah is telling us that all our competing desires, symbolized by the many stones Jacob placed around his head when he went to sleep, can be harnessed and directed to a much loftier and higher purpose for man rather than chasing the physical for its own sake. The physical world transitions from a pursuit in its own right to a means for achieving something more valuable. This goal can only be achieved when a person gets on the ladder and slowly redirects his energy to the metaphysical world. Having a proper relationship to the physical world is the “gateway to the heavens.” With this realignment to the physical world, a person can become more securely related to the Creator of the Universe.

Jacob’s anointing the stone and setting it up as a monument was to demonstrate that the physical world is really created for this higher purpose. This is true for every place in the world not just the place where Jacob slept. In fact, the physical world fulfills its purpose when used this way. “How numerous are Your works, Lord; You made then all with wisdom. The earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalms 104) It is our task to climb the ladder and see the wisdom in His physical creations and in His Torah.

True that place where Jacob slept eventually becomes the site of the Holy Temple and that stone, the altar in the Temple; but the lesson is for us here in Davie, Florida as well. Wherever we are, the physical can become “the gateway, the entrance, to the heavens.” The rest is up to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan