The Dream and the Vow

By Daphna Kannai

Former Shlicha in Memphis (2005-2008)
Currently works in The International School
for Holocaust Studies by Yad VaShem

The opening scene of our parsha is Yaakov’s running away from his home following his parents’ words and after stealing the blessings. The Torah provides a detailed description of his last night in the land of Canaan. At that night he saw in his dream a ladder which was set (‘Mutzav’– מוצב) earthward and G-d was standing over it (‘Nitzav’ – ניצב). The next day he made a vow and set the stone on which he slept over as a pillar (‘Matzeva- מצבה).

Much was written about the dream of the ladder, which gives a wonderful vivid expression of the perennial Jewish and universal challenge of connecting heaven and earth, holy and mundane, the material and the spiritual. As this is an essential and basic human challenge, this dream stands for itself. However, if we try to understand better what Yaakov is going through during that night, we should see the dream as part of a sequence of events: Leaving the home, the dream, the vow, and setting the pillar.
Right after Yaakov wakes up from his dream he takes a vow. Many pointed out to the similarities between the dream and the vow.
Dream: “Behold, I am with you”, Vow: “If G-d will be with me”;
Dream: “I will guard you wherever you go”, Vow: “And will guard me on this way that I am going”;
Dream: “And I will return you to this soil”, Vow: “And I return in peace to my father’s house”.

Why did Yaakov have to take a vow if he was promised by G-d all of the things he is making the vow about right before he takes the vow? Furthermore, he receives a general promise: “For I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you”!
In an attempt to understand this vow, one has to understand Yaakov’s mental state at this time. Yaakov is now in a traumatic situation. Until now, Yaakov appears as the ‘good boy’- “A wholesome man, abiding in tents” – dwelling in his father’s tent, connected to the family’s tradition and wishing to continue it. However, the way in which his is chosen to be the one who will continue the dynasty is very different from the way his parents, Avraham and Yitzchak, were chosen. 
Avraham was chosen by G-d and this was told to him directly by G-d in a revelation he received when he was commanded to leave his land (12, 1). Yitzchak was chosen prior to his birth during the revelation in which G-d tells Avraham that he will have a son from Sarah: “And G-d said, “Nonetheless your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Yitzchak; and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him” (17, 19).
In contrast to the explicit way by which his parents were chosen, it was never told to Yaakov’s father – Yitzchak – which one of his sons is supposed to be the one who continues the covenant, or perhaps both of his sons are supposed to be the followers?
Rivka had her own opinion regarding the matter and consequently convinced Yaakov to act cleverly in a way that was successful from her perspective. However, until Yaakov left his home there was not given any approval from G-d that Rivka’s action and position was right.
With this question and the fear from Esav’s revenge in the background, Yaakov dreams about the ladder.
It is noticeable that Yaakov is the first one of the Patriarchs who dreams. How much certainty is there regarding the degree of truth and prophecy that a dream has? How sure could Yaakov be that this is a true revelation from G-d and not just an internal wish in light of the contradiction between his desire on the one hand, and the current direction of his life events – going out of the promised land and being involved in a complex event of stealing/lying on the other hand? Rav Yitzchak Arama in his commentary Akeidat Yitzchak expresses Yaakov’s lack of certainty regarding the revelation he received: “If G-d will be (with me) – Behold, all the prophecy was via a dream, including his first prophecy, and therefore he could have been in doubt whether it was indeed a prophecy…”
Also the Sfat Emet addresses the question regarding the need for the vow. He explains the need for the vow using a Kabbalistic and psychological perspective: “And Yaakov took a vow. And it was asked: Why? G-d already promised him all this? But it seems that Yaakov tried to initiate these things now from his power…that G-d chose Yaakov and Yaakov chose G-d as it is written: “You crowned G-d and G-d crowned you”…(5643).  According to the Sfat Emet it is important that our relationship with G-d will not be based merely on Him approaching us but also on our attempt and effort to approach and turn to him. In the Kabbalistic language: there is a need for an arousal from the bottom – bottom-up (‘Itaruta deletata – אתערותא דלתתא) and not only an arousal from heaven – top-down (‘Itaruta deleila – אתערותא דלעילא). Following this idea, the scene of the ladder could be understood as a symbolic vision, expressing the mutual connection and attachment between man and G-d. The angels are going up and down over the ladder which is set and stabilized due to the fact that G-d is standing over it, on top of it. The innovation which the house of Avraham brings to the world is the mutual relationship with G-d, due to the fact that G-d sets a ladder and stabilizes it. This requires from us as the children of Israel an initiative and action.
The pillar which was set by Yaakov in Bet El is supposed to remind him and us that there is a gate to the heavens and that in order to reach stability in life it is good to get there. Thus we will get the merit that G-d will keep the stability of the ladder, which represents our way in life, while we are making the effort to act and are experiencing successes (climbing up the ladder ) but also failures (going down the ladder).