One of the highlights of the parsha this week is the dream of Jacob, where he has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder. There are multiple interpretations of this dream and its purpose in shaping the future of Jacob as the father of the nation of Israel. I would like to share two ideas with you.
The first idea comes from the Kabbalistic process of interpreting the words and ideas of the Torah called Gematria. In Gematria, we assign a numerical value to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and by looking at the total numerical value of the word(s), we can then look for other words that have the same numerical value and connect these in terms of meaning.
In Jacob’s dream, the ladder stretches from the earth to the heavens and the angels are in motion. The movement of the angels represents the idea of bridging the world of materialism to the world of spirituality. The word in Hebrew for ladder is “sulam”, which has a numerical value of 130 when it is spelled without the letter “Vav”. This is equal to the numerical value of the word “Sinai” and the Rabbis have suggested that perhaps it is always man’s quest to try to reach the spiritual heights that were experienced at Sinai. Another “Gematria” interpretation goes in a very different direction and is cited by the Baal HaTurim. The word “Sulam” when spelled with the letter “vav” is 136 which is equal in value to the Hebrew word “mammon” meaning money or wealth. Even more fascinating is that it also equals the Hebrew word “ohni” which means poverty. The idea here is that the ladder represents the economic struggle of man in the pursuit of a livelihood. Man will find himself on an economic ladder throughout his life. Some will ascend and becoming wealthier, and some will descend and struggle with economic challenges. The ladder is a symbol of the very real economic struggles of man.
The other idea comes from looking at the second dream of Jacob in chapter 31 of Genesis. In this second dream, Hashem speaks to Jacob about Laban his father in law who has been trying to make his life and livelihood difficult. The dream hints at Jacob’s inheritance and provides a description of goats. What is the relationship between the two dreams, one with the lofty picture of angels and a ladder and the other so soon afterwards with the picture of various goat markings?
I believe that the idea here is again the same as that of the play on words in gematria. The dream of the ladder is a true reflection of real life which is both spiritual and material. In life, we will have lofty and spiritual moments, where we will feel like angels. We will have experiences that will bring us to higher levels of understanding and emotion, and hopefully allow us to be better connected to God. But as with the second dream of Jacob, we are reminded that like the angels that descend and the real life “goats”, our lives are meant to be lived here on earth. The physical needs of man are also important and the challenges of taking care of our physical and economic needs are just as pressing. The test for us is to balance everything in a healthy way so that we have the right values and the strength to face the difficult times.