The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “What’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from VAYEITZEI (Chapters 28:10–32:3).

                                              Jacob’s Dream (Chapter 28:10–22)


Midrashim are parables

Many clergy interpret Scripture by filling their sermons with imaginative tales, midrashim,[1] that are not in the Bible, and many congregants are led to believe the tales are true events that are in the Bible. It is important to dispel this error and continually remind readers that this is not so.[2] Let’s look at an episode concerning Jacob.

Jacob ran from his home in Be’er Sheva, fled his brother Esau’s anger over his deceptive taking of their father Isaac’s blessing, and rushed north toward his uncle Laban’s home in Haran, which was probably in Mesopotamia. On the way, he happened upon an unidentified place and decided to sleep there.

Clergy may refer to the Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 91b) in their sermons, which states that the place in Genesis 22:4 is Mount Moriah, the site of the binding of Isaac on the altar. Although many commentators such as Saadiah Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rashbam, and ibn Kaspi do not share this view, seeing it as a midrashic homily and not a fact, it is understandable why the talmudic sages might want to emphasize the spiritual significance of Jacob’s dream that night by sermonically linking the location in which it occurred with the site of one of the most extraordinary spiritual events in the Bible, but is also important to realize that they were sermonizing and what they said was not necessarily true..

Is Mount Moriah holy as the homily is contending? Maimonides felt that places and objects are not holy per se. Holiness exists when people use things to improve themselves and society. Thus, he would say that the site of Isaac’s near sacrifice, assuming that the event was not a dream, is not holy. Mount Sinai is not holy even though the Decalogue was revealed there. Cemeteries where pious people are buried are not sacred grounds because of the people buried there. People should spend their time instead studying the teachings of the sages.


Was there one or many stones?

Scripture states in verse 11 that before going to sleep, Jacob took “from the stones of the place and puts it/them under his head.” The text is unclear whether “from” indicates a single stone, which is most likely, or many stones. Also the word vayesem is obscure: did Jacob place many or a single stone under his head. Later, in verse 18, Scripture clearly states the Jacob “took the stone (singular) that he placed under his head.”

The verses prompted midrashic interpretations and sermons, which ignore the obscurity and claims the verse is clear. The thirteenth century biblical commentator Chazkunee maintained that the stone that Jacob took was from the altar on which Abraham’s son Isaac was bound. The Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 91b) cites a Midrash describing the stones quarreling over the privilege of having Jacob’s head rest upon them. God resolves the dispute by merging all of the stones into the one mentioned in verse 18.

How should we interpret this Midrash? Are the sages suggesting that God is displeased with quarreling and divisiveness, even over what people consider holy or a law, and that unity is imperative? How should we understand Chazkunee? Is he simply following the method of many commentators in which they try to find many significant things occurring at a particular place or date,[3] but there is otherwise no message in his idea?


Jacob’s ladder

In a dream, Jacob sees a ladder inserted in the ground, its top reaching toward heaven with angels ascending and descending it, with God at the ladder top.[4] This dream can be interpreted in a Freudian manner: it was the result of the tensions Jacob had just experienced while securing his father’s blessing, his fear of his brother’s anger, and his concerns about the time he would be spending in his uncle Laban’s house.

However, many commentators have other views, such as: The angels figuratively show how people should act. It is a parable teaching people to strive upwards to obtain wisdom and then descend to everyday life to apply the wisdom to help society (Maimonides). The vision informs people that angels are needed in life (Nachmanides). The “dream” was a prophecy to Jacob that there will be a revelation at Mount Sinai, and in the dream he is taught the law that would later be revealed to his descendants so that he is fortified for his visit at the pagan Laban’s house (Midrash Genesis Rabbah). Others suggest that Jacob is assured in his vision that the Jewish people will have triumphs and defeats, but God will always “stand over” and preserve them.

Isn’t the Freudian view the simple meaning of the tale, while the other ideas are homilies?

[1] The Hebrew noun midrashim is derived from the root d-r-sh meaning to seek, study, expound.

[2] Maimonides wrote in his Chelek that people who consider midrashic imaginative tales as true occurrences are “fools.”

[3] A classical example is the tradition that many bad things occurred on the ninth day of the month Av, an unlucky day, none of which are supported by evidence.

[4]  Genesis 28:12.