Dreams…an Essential Human Experience
Jacob had a dream in an unknown place. Is there a message for us here?
Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him when Isaac died. He was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, which would itself present other dangers. Far from home, alone, he was at a point of maximum vulnerability. The sun set. Night fell. Jacob lay down to sleep, and then he saw a majestic vision of a ladder with angels ascending and descending.
Add to this Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with the angel in next week’s Parsha and we might have an answer to our question. Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home. He is the man who meets God when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of despair. Jacob is the man who, in liminal space, in the middle of the journey, discovers that “Surely the Divine is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Rabbinic commentators are obsessed with identifying this place as intrinsically holy and symbolic for the Jewish people. The Midrash zooms in on the Hebrew word for place, makom, mentioned 3 times in a single verse, Genesis 28:11. It comes with a preposition and adjective translated as “in that place,” that is, a place already known to us. To the medieval commentator, Rashi, it must be Mt. Moriah of Genesis, chapter 22, where Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac, as some kind of cruel test of his faith in God. Mt. Moriah was also slated to be the future site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The evolution of HaMakom in Jewish etymology did not lead to a high, holy, and mighty name for Jacob’s night-time location, but it did lead to another name for God, meaning God is in all places. . .God is everywhere.
There is also something to be said about sleeping in order to dream. Dreams are an essential human experience. They often allude to what we desire, what we lack, what we need, and what we should work toward. From Jacob’s viewpoint, sleeping and dreaming became the ultimate religious experience. It makes me muse that we, who spend our nights looking at screens that deny darkness and find it hard to prioritize stillness and rest, making time for sleep may be a vital mitzvah, and I am assuredly speaking from personal experience here. Moreover, if Jacob had not slept, he would not have dreamed of God and angels, would not have received his first message from God, and would not know that he was in a holy place. Sleep, which requires relaxation, respect for natural biological rhythms, and cessation from work, represents the opposite of what we erroneously think we need to do to attain physical and financial security. We are lured by mythic slogans such as New York, “the city that never sleeps,” attributed to it being a center of world economy and advancement. We are incessantly stimulated, especially at late night hours, by breaking news, TV satire, FOMO – fear of missing out on what is happening everywhere at every hour. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not far from the truth.
Yet, through sleeping and dreaming in one unnamed, featureless, and solitary place, Jacob received two spectacular blessings: that he would become the father of a people who would spread out in all directions and that God would accompany Jacob throughout the trials his transformation will undoubtedly present.
Whether by calming and restoring our bodies and souls through sleep, whether through revealing dreams, whether by conscious and thoughtful intention, whether through prayer or study, or, through our actions, we all have the human capacity to elevate and transform any place and any moment in our lives into sparks of holiness, that brilliantly illuminate our best selves, our path to the Divine and to each other.