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The Dreams that Stuff is Made of

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

There are three questions we can ask on the beginning of Parshat Va’Yetze. The first clause of the parsha states, ‘And Yaakov left from Be’er Sheva and went to Charan’ – however, we were already told this! Five pesukim prior to this one, Yitzchak had charged Yaakov to ‘rise up and go to Padan Aram to Betuel’s house’ to marry (and escape his brother’s wrath). The Torah then tells us that ‘Yitzchak [then] sent Yaakov; and [Yaakov] went towards Padan Aram’, and two pesukim later, ‘And Yaakov listened to his father and mother and went to Padam Aram[1]!

The second question concerns Yaakov’s reaction to his famous dream of God sitting atop a ladder upon which angels are ascending and descending. Yaakov wakes up and declares, ‘surely there is God in this place and I didn’t know’ and Yaakov, terribly frightened, then proclaims, ‘how awesome this place is!’ But, why didn’t he know and why was he so dramatically awestruck? Why should he have been so surprised that the God of his father and grandfather would also be found in this place (in Eretz Yisrael)?! Prior to this moment, God appeared to Avraham in ארם נהרים, שכם, חברון and in ארץ פלשתים; He appeared to Yitzchak in באר שבע (!); He even appeared to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Avimelekh in גרר! Is it so overwhelmingly surprising and ‘awesome’ therefore, that God could/would appear in this place too, just outside the city of לוז?

And the final question on this first section of the parsha: the Torah describes the location where Yaakov arrives, stops to rest, and dreams so significantly as ’המקום’ – ‘the place’, three different times (!), in one pasuk (!). However, not only is this not a place that we (nor Yaakov) have previously known (which is what the definite article ‘the’ seems to be conveying), but the Torah already told us that he only stopped there ‘because the sun was setting’[2]. There seems to be every indication that this place was specifically chosen coincidentally and therefore not explicitly significant to either Yaakov or us!

To answer all of these questions, we must first begin by addressing the exact meaning of the words, ‘וייקץ יעקב משנתו’ – ‘and Yaakov jumped up from his sleep’ (at the dream’s end). There are three other times in TaNaKH where someone similarly ‘jumps up’ (וייקץ) from sleep: Pharaoh (Breishit 41:5 and 8), Shimshon (Shoftim 16: 14) and Shlomo (Melakhim I 3:15). Concerning Pharaoh, the Torah states that he ‘dreamed a dream’, then ‘jumped up’, returned to sleep, dreamed again, and finally ‘jumped up’ again, to then realize that, ‘behold, it was (all) a dream’.  The meaning of the word ‘וייקץ’ in this case is fairly straightforward: although we had been told previously that he was sleeping and had been dreaming, Pharaoh suddenly jumps up from this sleep into (welcomed) wakefulness and personally appreciates that in fact it had all been (just) a dream.

In the episode with Shimshon, Delilah is attempting to ensnare him to then hand him over to the Plishtim. For her third attempt, Shimshon tells Delilah to stake down his hair in order weaken him. She does so, then calls the Plishtim to attack; but Shimshon ‘jumps up from his sleep’ and easily rips the stake from the ground. The straightforward understanding of ‘וייקץ משנתו’ in this instance is to tell us that he woke up from a sleep, a state we hadn’t known he was in previously. (During the previous two failed attempts, Shimshon, seemingly, had been awake).  

Lastly, at the beginning of Shlomo’s reign, God appears to him in a dream. At the end of this dream, Shlomo ‘jumps up, and behold, it was a dream’, then goes to Yerushalayim to bring קרבנות in gratitude to God. Again, the ‘ויקץ’ is telling us that he rose from his sleeping state to dramatically personally realize that ‘behold, it was (all) a dream’. 

And now we return to the use of this word/phrase in our episode. The Torah says ‘וייקץ יעקב משנתו’ – ‘and Yaakov jumped up from his sleep’. However, we were already told he was asleep (pasuk 11) so there’s no need to say that ‘he jumped up from his sleep’ (as was necessary by Shimshon when we didn’t know he had been sleeping); it also doesn’t say ‘and behold, it was a dream’, so the ‘jumping up’ is not telling us that Yaakov had a dramatic realization that he had in fact been dreaming – which would sufficiently warrant the significant ‘jumping up’ demarcation (like it did with both Pharaoh and Shlomo). In truth, there are no facts that this phrase would be used to convey or clarify. We can easily accept, therefore, that the meaning of the phrase is understood as metaphorical, that in fact in this context, the Torah is reporting that Yaakov was ‘awakened’ from his own ‘stupor’, that he experienced a personal awakening from a prior ignorance[3]!

And what was Yaakov’s previous misconception that he was only now ‘awakened’ to?  In order to answer this question, we must now return and answer our original questions. The highlighted ‘definite article’ המקום is not employed to connote a place that he/we would have known before, but rather to tell us that it is important in its own right – it’s the place. Because of the ‘ה’, this place is recognized as the significantly demarcated place between his exit - ‘ויצא יעקב באר שבע’, and his arrival - ‘וילך חרנה’. This is also why the Torah repeats his exit from Be’er Sheva and his travels toward Charan at the beginning of this parsha: it is necessary to establish distinct bookends to direct us to now find Yaakov specifically within ‘the significantly demarcated place’ of transition, located ‘between’ them.  And this is why Yaakov is so surprised when God appears to him at this spot. Of course he had heard of the myriad of times and places God had appeared to his father and grandfather, but all of those occurrences were either before someone exited from one place, or after he had arrived in the new one. Never had God appeared to anyone during a transition phase – and it is this unprecedented occurrence therefore, that ‘awakened’ Yaakov from his previous ‘stupor’ of misguided understanding. For it turns out that God, in fact, even appears during a journey!

However, we then have to ask why God therefore appeared there! It sounds like Yaakov was correct to have been so surprised to have seen God at this point because, in fact, He has never before appeared during the middle of a trip. So, why did He do it now? For, like his grandfather, Yaakov was dramatically leaving everything behind, but unlike his grandfather, he was also going to come back. God, therefore, uniquely appeared to Yaakov during his journey to properly direct it towards its Divinely desired end. Avraham knew that God wanted him to travel and knew exactly what this journey would accomplish; Yitzchak was explicitly told by God not to make any journey at all; Yaakov, however, didn’t enjoy any Divine direction and unsettlingly had no clear understanding of where his journey was supposed to ultimately end. He was sent away because of his brother’s hatred and with a charge to find a wife – a totally personally motivated exit, without any detailed instruction as to how to actualize his goal (the total opposite reality to Avraham’s departure). He had also just received the Avraham brakhah from Yitzchak, his mother had just maneuvered him into the leadership position of the family’s Divinely foretold future, and now he was dramatically forced to leave behind the land and life of this prophesied future and venture out into the world - a world that his ‘chosen’ grandfather was explicitly told was not part of this ordained future. So God appears to Yaakov at the beginning of this journey (‘ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע’) to relay to him everything he needed to hear at his ‘first step’ into this great uncertainty. God’s words to Yaakov in the dream explicitly address these insecurities: ‘Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’ (15). God ‘blesses’ the journey with the guarantee of His presence and protection throughout each and every stage, and at the same time ensures that Yaakov understands that this journey’s proper conclusion is back in the Promised Land. For the depth of appreciation of any conclusion is directly proportional to the depth of appreciation of the journey that preceded it. And this is the very understanding that Yaakov needed to be ‘awakened’ to[4].

And Yaakov receives and understands this message perfectly. For, upon waking the next morning, Yaakov states within the oath he makes to God in response to His message, ‘…God is with me and protects me on my entire journey…and I return to my father’s house…’ (20-21). Also, Yaakov promises that he will transform the simple monument (מצבה) he dedicated to God upon his exit into a significant altar (מזבח) upon his return[5].

And brilliantly, this is not the only time that Yaakov is faced with a similar ‘exit’ during which God appears to him to deliver a similar declaration of security and direction. Over 100 years later, Yaakov is informed that his favorite son Yosef is still alive and is the viceroy in Egypt. Immediately, Yaakov decides that, ‘I must see my son before I die’. Once again leaving for purely personal reasons, and once again uncertain whether he would be returning from this exit, God appears to Yaakov during his trip – having already left Chevron and having stopped in Be’er Sheva. And He once again delivers the similarly themed message: ‘Do not be afraid of descending to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt and I will take you back up from it [to Eretz Yisrael] and Yosef will be the one to close your eyes [upon your death]’ (46:3-4). For the second time, God appears to Yaakov during his journey to ensure the proper appreciation even of this transitional stage and its essential role it will play in its ultimate conclusion. God tells Yaakov that under His watchful eye, it is specifically during this transition that the beginning of the promised ‘nation’ would be created, and Yosef, the facilitator of this Divinely-foretold future, will be properly reintroduced into the ‘forefather family formula’. Yaakov was therefore comforted and guaranteed that this ‘personal’ journey outside of Eretz Yisrael to see his son was not only not a deviation from the intended prophesied end but actually a critical step towards the actualizing of it.  

And of course this dynamic was essentially illustrated in Yaakov’s life to properly demonstrate it to his children, Bnei Yisrael. For they too would find themselves in a ‘transition stage’ of over 200 years in Egypt but without any comforting appearance from God;  but, they had to understand, nevertheless, that this stage was an essential building block for their future. Like Yaakov, they also needed to sojourn outside of Eretz Yisrael to enable their development into the nation that would triumphantly return to it – and it was this dynamic twice in Yaakov’s life that modeled this message to them.


[1] Padam Aram and Charan are the same place. For more on this, see the following article:

[2] R. Hirsch, for example, is forced to admit that even though the Torah wrote ויפגע – the term used to describe Yaakov’s arrival at this place – which always connotes a purposeful meeting, the place was puzzlingly nonetheless not appealing enough to convince Yaakov to stop there; for he only remained at the spot ‘because the sun was setting’.

[3] To perhaps add to the metaphorical understanding of this phrase, the Torah reports that Yaakov only physically gets up the next morning (וישכם יעקב בבוקר)…and therefore maybe he never truly physically woke at all before during the night and instead only experienced a metaphoric awakening.

[4] The image of the ladder fits well into this message, too: the angels were seen to be ascending and descending – leaving, and then returning to Eretz Yisrael - all under the watchful eye of God. 

[5] As explained by R. Hirsch, a monument (מצבה) was merely erected using one stone or rock, a simple humanly-designated natural object – therefore representing a ‘minor’ expression of God-devotion. However, an altar (מזבח) was purposefully constructed from many stones, a heavily involved human contribution, which therefore expressed a deeper devotion to God.


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