Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham takes us into Parashat Va’Yetze and the various textual and artistic interpretations of Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s dream, God and the Angels. Hint….not all is harmonious within the heavenly kingdom.
Parashat Va’Yetze begins with Jacob’s departure from Canaan to Haran. Still within Canaan, Jacob has a dream:
וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. וְהִנֵּה ה’ נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it. (Bereshit 28:12-13)
The dream’s central motif is a ladder. Ladder סולם is a singular word in the Bible, so we do not know what that ladder would have looked like. However, its purpose as outlined in the text is perfectly clear: it connects Heaven and earth, human and Divine, and links Jacob, asleep on the ground, with God:
וְהִנֵּה ה’ נִצָּב עָלָיו
The ladder has two faces: on the one hand, it represents two opposite ends; On the other hand, it enables connection between the opposites. In Jacob’s dream, the angels going up and down the ladder establish this connection between Heaven and earth.
The expression עולים ויורדים “going up and down” was puzzling to many commentators. As celestial beings, one would expect the angels to first descend and then to ascend. The Aramaic Targum to the תורה, called the Targum Yerushalmi, expands the verse, and adds new details to the biblical story.
The Targum relates that the angels who went to Sodom during the days of Abraham and who had since been wandering the earth in exile, accompanied Jacob to Bethel upon his departure from his father’s home.
These angels ascended the ladder and informed their fellow angels of their opportunity to view Jacob. Why Jacob? Because an etching of Jacobs’ image adorns the celestial throne of glory. These angels, acquainted with Jacob from the heavenly replica of his image, wanted to view him in person, in his original human form. This description conveys Jacob’s special status in these traditions, expressed in the Targum as the angels’ adoration towards him.
However, this harmonious picture is not consistent across all the sources. Let’s look at the words of the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Chulin:
…the angels were ascending and gazing at the image of Jacob above, and descending and gazing at his image below. The angels wanted to endanger his life. Immediately as the verse states: “And behold, the Lord stood over him” (Bereshit 28:13).
Here too, the angels ascend and descend the ladder to observe the double portrait of Jacob – earthly and celestial – the original and the copy. However, the angels seek to harm Jacob. Rashi explains: because of jealousy. Possibly, the intimacy between Jacob and God provokes their envy. In any case, a tension between Jacob and the angels is evident in this source.
I will conclude with two works of art, from two illuminated manuscripts of הגדה של פסח created in 14th century Catalonia, Spain. The first is the famous ‘Golden Haggadah’; and the second, the Sister Haggadah, so called because of its resemblance to the famous Golden Haggadah.
In both illustrations, the lower left corner depicts Jacob reclining surrounded by three angels. A fourth angel ascends the ladder stretching from Jacob’s body towards the upper right corner. The most fascinating and enigmatic element in both works is that which appears at the top of the ladder: a human face in the Golden Haggadah and two faces in the Sister Haggadah.
To understand these works it is necessary to consider depictions of Jacob’s ladder in contemporary Christian art which portray God at the top of the ladder. This proposal is not possible for these two works since Jewish art consistently avoids the depiction of God in human form. In the case before us, I would like to suggest that the faces shown at the top of the ladder are not angels, but rather the face of Jacob, which echoes his figure lying at the bottom of the ladder.
SHAVUA TOV FROM SCHECHTER
Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks. She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.