Parashat Vayetze 5767

jacobs-ladder.jpg(Jacob) dreamed: a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached up to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

The vivid image of angels ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream has been interpreted in many ways by many commentators. One famous midrash suggests that the angels represent prominent empires that would rule the world. (See for instance Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 25). Though mighty nations such as Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome (represented by his brother, Esau) would later ascend to a place over power over the Jewish people, Jacob was reassured by God that these nations, like all empires, were eventually fated to “descend” and fall. In much the same way, the rabbinic authors of these midrashim may have sought to reassure a beleagured Jewish people that the small Jewish nation yet lived while the empires that oppressed them (yes, even the mighty Roman Empire) inevitably disappeared into the annals of history.

This reminder should serve not only as a reassurance for nations at their lowest moments, but as a caution for empires at their mightiest. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has held tightly to a self-image of itself as the “world’s only superpower.” But we are increasingly coming to understand that even 21st century empires are subject to the ever-shifting sands of history.

For instance, journalist Roger Cohen recently wrote in the International Herald Tribune that we are currently witnessing the emergence “of a new bipolar world whose centers are in Washington and Bejing.” Analyst Charles A. Kupchan (“The End of the American Era”) and others point to the rising power and influence of the European Union. Much like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, the world now finds itself in the midst of a new pattern of “ascendancy” and “descendancy.”

Though every empire tends to view itself as the sine qua non of its time, history tends teaches us otherwise. In the end, as the Jewish people knows all too well, a nation’s longevity is determined by factors much deeper than mere power and might.

4 thoughts on “Parashat Vayetze 5767

  1. Stan Cohn

    Thanks Brant. It’s nice to remind governments that like the inscription on the ring given to Soloman – “This too shall pass”. It is one of the many reasons I am so opposed to any large expansion of nuclear power so long as it generates long term nuclear wastes. People talk about finding sites with geologic stability for 50,000 years, while I say – who will be holding the keys to the waste vaults in 50,000 years? That’s far longer than any government has yet lasted on Earth!

    As for the ladder it reminds me of a different metaphor. As a biologist I have worked with proteins that move things along tracks inside of cells, and i have always been amazed at the way in which some particles are directed outward (say to secrete material out of the cell) while others move inward (say bringing in nutrients) – all along the same cellular tracks. So when I think of angels moving up and down the ladder – I think of two-way communication.

    I see angels going up to God delivering our dreams, our prayers, and observations and reports of the day. I see angels coming down to give messages of hope and comfort, act as watchmen, and help distribute Gods blessings. I see angels as I suppose many Catholics see saints – as those who acts as intermediaries between God and humanity – bringing Godliness to earth and Humanity to God.


  2. Shirley Gould

    Maybe what we need to do is to put leaders in positions other than the current crew: leaders who understand the shifting sands of history and will use their brains to steer our country into a better path than the one we now follow. Being the world’s only superpower (if that is truly the case) carries responsibilities to all the people of the universe.

  3. Jordan Margolis

    Sorry, Rabbi, I don’t believe there is any meaning in Jacob’s ridiculous dream. I’ve never seen a Jew on a ladder, let alone angels. Nice try, keep dreaming.

    Shabbat Shalom,

  4. maya escobar

    I think that humans generally need a justification or acknowledgement for their prayers (conversations with God). The imagery of angels coming up and down the ladder provides us with a connection to an unknown force. Perhaps they were Jacob’s own creation, giving him message he wanted to hear.


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