R. Arama thinks that the famous ladder of Yaakov’s dream symbolizes reality; the link between the physical and the heavenly; the vehicle of Hashem’s influence descending to Earth’s inhabitants. For him, the angels in the dream were great “people,” whose thoughts and musings have them reach upwards, step by step, to where Hashem resides. The ladder represents the knowledge Nature can give, what Rambam and others called ma’aseh bereishit, what Aristotle called physics (in contrast to metaphysics).
At the top, where Hashem stood (in the dream), they receive prophecy; knowledge they never would have achieved by intellect alone. Bereishit Rabbah 68 cites a view comparing the numerology (gematria) of the words sinai and sulam (both 130), telling R. Arama that the dream gave Yaakov Avinu the same experience of Hashem as the Jewish people would have at Sinai.
The dream made clear to Ya’akov an idea he would never have imagined on his own: that he was lying on a place worthy of a House for Hashem’s eternal Presence (R. Arama quotes several midrashim linking objects in the dream to parts of the Temple, and/or equating the physical, earthly house with the Heavenly one. The combination of the two Midrashic ideas, the ladder and Sinai, have the same numerological value, and elements of the dream point to parts of the Beit HaMikdash. This seems to me to fit well with Ramban’s idea that Hashem wanted the Jews to build a Mishkan and later Mikdash precisely to serve as a host for the Presence from Sinai, linking Sinai to Temple. R. Arama does not mention it.)
Providence in Exile
Hashem promises Yaakov his descendants will multiply and spread out, telling R. Arama Hashem was going beyond what had been promised to Avraham and Yitzchak, and guaranteeing Providence, Hashem’s continuing Presence and protection for Yaakov and his descendants, with eventual return to the land, regardless of how far they spread or scatter. It has to be so, he says, because Hashem assures Yaakov He will be with him, and protect him until Hashem fulfills all He just promised.
Until Jews return to Israel, he was telling his audience, this passage, the promises of this dream, have not come true.
Hashem also speaks most directly about the land on which Yaakov is lying, teaching Yaakov (and us) it was the essential part of the Land. This is why Yaakov awakes to assume the House of God should go right there.
The verse tells us va-yira, signifying awe or fear. R. Arama attributes this to the experience of being forced to accept a truth one’s intellect would never have found. Yaakov knew he had to accept it (a reminder, I think, that real prophecy cannot be doubted, as it is so clearly true that no room is left for avoidance or denial), while he also could not reject the intellectual truths he had known up until then.
The fear comes from the delicate path he had to tread, to recognize the place was a Beit Elokim, a House of God, without it contradicting the impossibility of a house of God. It was a House in the sense of being the best place for seekers to find truths about Hashem, to come to accept Hashem’s Providential supervision of the world, ideas that qualify as a House without running afoul of the accurate philosophical problems with thinking Hashem needs or lives in a house.
Yaakov’s Troubling Promise
Aside from his declared recognition of the significance of the place, Yaakov makes promises that seem to doubt Hashem’s assurance of protection. Yaakov conditions his commitment (itself a problem, given the necessity of serving Hashem regardless of what Hashem does or does not do for us) on Hashem’s being with him in Haran. Nor does he display the kind of confidence we would have expected, the verses at the beginning of Vayishlach telling us he was very afraid of his encounter with Esav.
Worse, as he prays for help with Esav, he does not refer back to Hashem’s promises herehe points out Hashem had told him, at the end of Vayeitze, to return to Canaan, but not the blanket protection extended in the ladder dream. (Yaakov does speak of Hashem’s having said hetev etiv imakh, I will do good by you; as R. Arama notes, Rashi reads it as meaning Hashem’s promise to Avraham about his descendants.)
Lastly, Yaakov makes a vow here he seems uncomfortably lax about fulfilling Hashem has to remind him of the vow at the end of his twenty years in Haran, and then again after the incident at Shekhem. Only then does Yaakov tell his family it’s time to go to Beit El to fulfill the vow. R. Arama expects more from a man of Yaakov’s stature.
The Uncertainty of Dreams
To R. Arama, the answer lies in Yaakov’s unreadiness for prophecy. Nedarim 38a tells us a prophet must be wise, strong, and wealthy; were Yaakov all those, he would not need to flee his father’s house, nor pray for Hashem to give him food and clothing, as he does here
The dream was close to a prophecy, but still a dream. As proof, Yaakov does not realize it is a prophecy even after waking up. Paroh recognizes the dreams Yosef interprets for him as important when he awoke, as did Shlomo Ha-Melekh after his first dream encounter with Hashem. Rambam, in his Guide, insists those were not prophecies, and Yaakov’s experience seems a step below theirs, because he never confirms the dream as a sort of revelation, instead saying “akhen yesh Hashem, indeed, Hashem is in this place,” without ever articulating it had been a moment of revelation.
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.