Even with all the diversity among the Jewish people, one sentence epitomizes the Jewish relationship with the Land of Israel. It was around the year 500 B.C.E. when our psalmist put quill to parchment and wrote, shir ha’ma’a lot, “A song of ascending. When God returned the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers.” When God returned us from the forced exile in Babylonia, it was as if we were living a dream. And so we sing, every Shabbat and Yom Tov, after eating and feeling satisfied; we begin our praise of God, the source of food, Birkat Hamazon, with a song of ascending dreams.
The dream is not new. We can interpret it in every Torah portion we have read since the very beginning. Adam and Eve’s dream was to live forever and to follow their own rules. Cain dreamed of always doing right in God’s eyes. Noah dreamed of a world without violence. They dreamed of reaching God’s heights when they built the Tower of Babel. And in each case, the dream was not to be.
But then, God spoke to Abram, “Go forth to the land that I will show you.” For Abram and Sarai, that dream, the voice of the omnipresent intangible God became the compass of a journey that would last generations. They dreamed of a just God who punishes the guilty and spares the innocent — and Lot was saved from Sodom and Gemmorah. They dreamed of having a child in the land — and she laughed at Isaac’s birth. And the dream was almost shattered atop the mountain, but we are still here to relive it.
Isaac dreamed the same dream and found its fruition in Rebecca, who comforted and loved him in the absence of Sarah. They continued to dream, almost a nightmare. First the fear of infertility and then the fear of problematic pregnancy. The children fought in the womb, and the fighting never ceased.
Isaac and Rebecca had dreams for their children, but Esau disappointed them. His marriage to Judith, the Hittite, was evidence that he was willing to shatter the dream of continuity and intergenerational dialogue and support. And so Isaac and Rebecca continued the dream through Jacob. Yes, they tricked Esau, all three of them, because the dream must continue.
So we open this week’s Torah portion with a dream. Jacob, still itching from the furs he placed on his arms, still trembling from the anxiety of allegedly tricking his father, still panting from the dash to escape the vengeful Esau who vowed to kill him after the death of their father, comes to a certain place when the sun sets. He lay his head on a make-do pillow, a rock, and the dream continues: “Here, a ladder was set up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here: Messengers of God were going up and down on it.”
So let’s ask the question: If a ladder reaches from earth to heaven and messengers of God are traveling upon it, which way would you suppose the messengers would be traveling? My first guess would be that they travel down from heaven, deliver their message and then ascend the ladder. But Torah teaches that the messengers first ascended to heaven and then descended to earth. Why? Rashi teaches us that those messengers who ascended were completing their tasks of escorting Jacob within the Land of Israel while those messengers who descended were escorting Jacob from the Land of Israel to the other lands he would visit.
And so we come full circle: dreams, ascending, the Land of Israel. Jacob’s dream is the dream of those who returned to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian Exile some 1,000 years later: a song of ascending climbing ladders and dreaming dreams all because of our physical and emotional connections with the Land of Israel. Even today, as we struggle for peace, our dreams for Israel must still ascend as if they were climbing a ladder straight to heaven.
Rabbi Ron Symons is the outgoing director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.