By Rabbi Andy Gordon
Jacob is on the run! His brother Esau is furious because Jacob stole his blessing. Jacob grabs his staff and flees as quickly as possible. As the sun sets, Jacob is alone, far from home.
Jacob falls into a deep sleep and has a vibrant dream. A huge ladder reaches from the ground all the way up to the heavens. On the ladder are angels going up and going down. God tells him, “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.” Jacob wakes up shaken and replies, “God was in this place, and I did not know it!”
It is a very powerful dream, yet one thing stands out: Jacob’s passivity. As the angels of God went up and down upon the ladder, Jacob remains stuck on the ground. Why didn’t Jacob go up the ladder with the angels?
Vayikra Rabbah 29:2 shares Jacob’s reasoning: “‘I was afraid. Look, all those angels went up, but they also had to come down. I don’t want to fall.’ God responds, ‘Fear not, Jacob. If you go up the ladder, trust Me — you will not fall.’ But Jacob didn’t believe God, and he did not go up.”
In many ways, we can understand Jacob’s unwillingness to climb the ladder. He was far from home, all by himself. He was terrified that his brother was going to seek revenge. This was not a moment to climb to the heavens. Better to remain on the ground, tucked safely in his camp. For Jacob, life was filled with disappointment and fear. There was an inability to live life to the fullest, to follow his dreams!
Over time, something changed for Jacob. He recognized that taking risks allowed him to live. Jacob continued to struggle, but it was these struggles that pushed him to experience great moments of joy and love. His name was even changed from Jacob to Israel, meaning “one who struggles with God.”
We are named for Jacob. We are the people Israel, the people who struggle with God. We have a right to feel nervousness and even be scared at the state of the world. We will struggle, we will stumble, but we can’t allow fear to win. Like Jacob, we must conquer our fear and not allow darkness to dampen our spirit. We too must climb to the heavens and follow our dreams.
Rabbi Andy Gordon serves as the spiritual leader of Bolton Street Synagogue.