Jacob’s Night Vision and the Foundation Stone of the World

Author: Rachel Adelman, Shevat 5765 תשס"ה/Jan 2005

Upon his journey from Beer Sheva to Haran, Jacob happens upon a certain place and falls asleep there, only to experience a remarkable vision of angels ascending and descending a ramp:

And Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Haran. And he encountered a certain place (Va’yifga ba’makom), And he took of the stones of the place and put [them] at his head, And he lay down in that place, and he dreamed, and look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were ascending and descending it. (Gen. 28:10-12, my translation).

The Hebrew expression for "encountered a certain place", va’yifga ba’makom, is highly unusual, suggesting that Jacob was arrested, mid-step, literally "struck" by the place. Breshit Rabbah draws upon the connotations of harsh impact and suggests that Jacob wished to pass on but the Earth was made into a kind of wall before him. God had made the sun set, precipitously, so that Jacob could go no further; he had to sleep there. Darkness, for the traveler in the Ancient-near-East, was the rate-limiting step. Why is Jacob forced to sleep in this place, ba-makom hazeh? Rabbinical sources do not assume that this is the Bet El, which was once called the city of Luz (cf. v. 19), some ten miles north-east of Jerusalem, but identify the place, instead, as Har Moriah. Rashi links the site to the place of Isaac’s traumatic "binding" (the akeda), through the verse "…and he saw the place from afar" (Gen. 22:4). His claim is based simply on one word—"makom" (place), which appears no less than six times in our passage, and four times in chapter 22 (v. 3, 4, 9, 14). But does this linguistic ‘hook’ not seem rather arbitrary? The term makom is ubiquitous in the Tanakh; it could refer to almost any place—Shekhem, for instance (cf. Gen. 12:6) or the view overlooking Sedom and ‘Amora (cf. 19:26).

I’d like to suggest a deeper connection between Jacob’s night-vision and the akeda, which hinges upon his response upon waking. He is seized with fear, and bursts out into poetry:

"How awesome is this place!
This can be but the house of God,
And this the gate of Heaven." (Gen. 18:17)

What leads Jacob to identify this as ‘the gate of the Heaven"? The vision of the ramp, the sulam of course! It is set in the earth with its top reaching the heavens, with angels gliding up and down upon it. The term sulam has been commonly mistranslated as a ladder, made of two straight beams with steps, though in the Tanakhsulam appears only once. I would like to follow Robert Alter’s suggestion that it most likely resembled a ramp, akin to those found in ancient Mesopotamian temples (ziqqurat), a structure composed of vast, multiple ramps with terraced landing. The phrases "its top reaching the heavens" (v.12) and "the gate of Heaven" (v. 17) recall the thwarted intentions behind the Tower of Babel: "Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens" (Gen. 11:4). The generation of the dispersion had wanted to make a tower between Heaven and Earth, to breach the barrier between the Divine and the human realm. According to Sarna, the ancient ziqqurat symbolized that gate between worlds, "Rooted in earth with its head lost in the clouds, it was the meeting point of heaven and earth…Being the obvious channel of communication between heaven and earth, the holy mount was looked upon as the center of the universe, ‘the navel of the earth’, the very axis mundi." The most famous ziqqurat of all, most likely the subject of the story of the Tower of Babel, was known as E-temen-an-ki (lit. "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth"), in Babylon, dating back to the early 2nd millennium. God, according to the biblical account, destroys this monument, "for, if this is what they have begun to do, nothing they scheme to do will be withheld from them" (Gen. 11:6).

Now Jacob dreams of this vertical bridge between Heaven and Earth in the very place of his father’s near-sacrifice. Does he achieve, in a dream, what other generations could never achieve in the way of a physical monument? What is it about the event atHar Moriah that allows this channel between Heaven and Earth to open? Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (chapter 35) suggests that Jacob took the very stones, which he lay at his head, from the altar of the Akedah, (cf. Gen. 28:11), and when he awoke he found the stones fused into one (v. 17). One thing we surely know about stones is that they do not spontaneously fuse! So the midrash understands it to be symbolic of the unity of the Jewish people (and perhaps how difficult that unity is to achieve!). These are the stones upon which the patriarch Avraham demonstrated his faith and fear of the Almighty when he did not withhold his son. As the angel proclaims: "Now I know that you are God-fearing, ya’reih-Elokim, for you did not spare your son, your only one, from me." (22:12). The place is called, Har Moriah, the mountain of awe, based on the verb ‘to fear’, - the letters are yud.resh.aleph, but the patriarch names it according to the verb, ‘to see’, resh.aleph.heh. "And Abraham called the name of the place ‘the Lord will see’ (Adonay-yireih) as it is said to this day, ‘the Lord will appear" (Adonay-ye’ra’eih)" (v. 14), inadvertently recalling his answer to Isaac’s anxious query, "God will see to the sheep, Elohim yireih ha’seh, for His burnt offering, my son" (v. 8). Does Har Moriahrepresent the fear of God (yud.resh.aleph), the willingness to sacrifice the son, or God’s hesed, the willingness to see to a substitute sacrifice (resh.aleph.heh)? From the moment when the angel stays the patriarch’s hand with the call, "Do not raise your hand against the boy…" (v. 12), and presents the ram instead, the place of sacrifice, Har Moriah, stands for the act of notsacrificing the son. God will see to some kind of animal substitute. This place later becomes the site of the temple mount, the place where God and man "meet", through the awe of the Almighty, yirat-Elokim, and the faith in His hesed, His mercy.

Now Jacob, on his journey from the house of his father, re-experiences that awe, a déjà vu of his father’s binding. Forced to lie down, arrested upon his journey by the sudden sunset, he experiences a primal fear, "How awesome is this place!" (v. 17). The vision of the ‘ladder’ is intended to be a palliative for that fear, a vision of the foundation of the temple, Beit Elokim, in that place. There Jacob sets up a monument of the twelve-stones-fused-into-one to mark the spot. According to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer(chapter 35), what did God do?

He stretched out His right foot [symbolic of eternity] and sank the stone deep into the earth, as one sets a keystone into an arch. Accordingly, the stone is called, even hashtya, the Foundation Stone, and there is the navel of the world and from there the whole Earth was stretched out [in the Act of Creation], and, upon that stone the temple of God stands.

This stone, which formed the basis of the altar upon which Isaac was bound, is the axis mundi, the base of the channel between Heaven and Earth. Jacob has a vision of that "House of God, the gate to Heaven" (v. 17), a vision, which the makers of the Tower of Babel never fulfilled. Ideally, the Israelite temple would be a channel between Heaven and Earth, founded not on the sacrifice of the son but on the faith that God will, ultimately, stay the hand that holds the dagger. It is the meeting place between the divine and the earthly realms, founded on fear, but grounded on a substitute offering. Moreover, Jacob’s experience at Bet El also presages the sons that he will bear, the twelve stones representative of the twelve tribes, fused into one nation—a vision to which neither Abraham nor Isaac were ever privy. May it be the will of God, to unite the Jewish people in this place soon. "Ba’shana ha’ba’ah be’Yerushalyim ha’benuyah."

בשנה הבא בירושלים הבנויה