Is Jacob caught in a dream or in reality in Parshat Vayetze? Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism and the Arts, collaborated with world renowned artist, Avner Moriah, to create The Illuminated Torah, a collection of 54 paintings representing each of the weekly Torah portions. How do the colors in the painting and the position of the ladder influence our understanding of Jacob’s dream?
Knowing that Esau is determined to kill his brother over the “stolen” birthright, Rebekah urges Jacob to leave their home and go to her family to find a wife. Fleeing from Beer-Sheba on his way to Haran, Jacob “came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night” (Gen. 28:11). Putting a stone under his head for a pillow, he lay down and had a dream.
What does the imagery of “Jacob’s dream” bring to mind and why? What is the role of the angels Jacob dreams about? What does Jacob learn from his dream? Avner Moriah visualized Jacob’s dream in a naïve style of painting. He imaged the darkness that befell Jacob, “for the sun had set” (Gen. 28:11), as a cheerful dreamlike vista of colorful hills, a bright yellow sky, and blue ground. We see Jacob lying on the slope of a hill upside down and although he is asleep and dreaming his eyes are wide open, looking toward the Heavens. In his dream he sees a ladder that “was set on the ground and its top reached the sky and angels of God were going up and down on it” (Gen 28:12).
The ladder and the angels, shown in pairs, visualized as small winged Mesopotamien figurines, seem to take us back to the biblical description of the Tower of Babel, “a tower with its top in the sky” (Gen. 11:4). However, unlike in the earlier episode, we have here not a description of man’s misguided desire to compete with God, but rather an expression of longing for God’s approval and protection. Comparing the two stories highlights the differences between a pagan episode and a divine revelation.
In his dream Jacob sees the angels that conceivably accompanied him in Canaan going up and angels that are to guard over him on his journey coming down. This interpretation is visualized in a reversal of a conventional color scheme, wherein distant objects are seen faintly with less precise color and near objects are imaged in clear bright strong colors. Here, the angels that were already on Earth and are now ascending back to Heaven are painted in dark blue and those that are descending from Heaven down to Earth look almost white.
Above the ladder against the bright yellow sky is “the gateway to heaven” (Gen. 28:17), an opening in the sky with a spiral image symbolizing the spirit of God. Here, unlike in the story of the Tower of Babel, God is not angry, but rather is speaking to Jacob from the top of the ladder saying: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring” (Gen. 28:13). God reveals himself to Jacob and assures him that he will receive all that was promised to Abraham and Isaac. God tells him that beyond the uncertainties and darkness that enfolded him before he fell asleep, a great future awaits him. God promises to protect him and return him to this very land.
The rounded naïvely rendered hills surrounding the figure of Jacob, brightly painted with trees and all manner of florae, seem to visualize the ideal existence that God’s promises to him in the dream. Upon waking from this very peaceful vision, Jacob returns to the dark reality of his present. Shaken but elated and impassioned, he exclaims, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven” (Gen. 28:17).
The above essay is excerpted from The Illuminated Torah. It is available for purchase.
Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D., which she received in 2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).