Jacob left Bersheva and set off for Charan. And he reached the place and he stopped there for the night because the sun had gone down. He took from the stones of the place and made a pillow for his head, and he lay down in that place.
He dreamed: There was a ladder set on the ground and its top reached the heavens, and there were angels of God going up and down on it. There was HaVaYaH standing over him, and He said: "I am HaVaYaH God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac. The Land that you are lying on I will give to you and your seed. And your seed will be like the dust of the earth and you will break forth to the west, the east, the north and the south, and all the families of the Earth will be blessed through you and through your seed. See, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land. For I will not abandon you until I have done what I have told you.
Jacob awoke from his sleep and he said, "Indeed HaVaYaH is in this place, but I did not know." He was filled with awe. He said: "How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of God and this is the Gate to Heaven." Jacob rose early in the morning and took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its head. He called the name of that place Beit El, though Luz was the name of the city at first. Jacob took a vow, saying: "If God will be with me and guard me on this path I am traveling and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I come home in peace to the house of my father, HaVaYaH will be my God. And this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be the House of God and from all that You give me I will set aside a tithe for You.
After Jacob received the blessings instead of Esau, Isaac and Rebecca counseled him to leave the Land of Israel and go to Charan to find a wife from among the family of Rebecca's brother Laban.
According to tradition, when Jacob set off from Bersheva, the raging Esau sent his son Eliphaz to kill him. However Eliphaz had grown up on Isaac's lap. When he caught up with Jacob he could not bring himself to kill him. Eliphaz asked Jacob what he should do about his father's orders. The wise Jacob advised Eliphaz to take all his money since "a poor man is as good as dead". This way it would be as if Eliphaz had killed him (Rashi on Genesis 29:11).
Isaac had blessed Jacob with great prosperity. "God will give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth and abundant corn and wine..." (Genesis 27:28). Isaac and Rebecca were themselves immensely wealthy (see Cultivating the Land field-003). Yet as Jacob set off at the start of his life's journey, it was not as a wealthy heir with a bulging wallet. Jacob crossed the Jordan with nothing more than a stick in his hand (Genesis 32:11). His inheritance from Abraham and Isaac was not one of unearned wealth and privilege. It was to lead a life of toil and labor in the service of HaVaYaH, using his wits, his lips and his very hands.
"Jacob left Bersheva and set off for Charan. And he reached the place and he stopped there for the night because the sun had gone down. He took from the stones of the place and made a pillow for his head and he lay down in that place" (Genesis 28:10-11).
The Hebrew text of the Bible clearly states that Jacob reached not just "a place" but "the place", referring to a place whose identity is already known to the reader from having been mentioned earlier in the text. However in the immediately preceding verses there is no mention of any place. Which place did Jacob reach?
The Hebrew word for "the place", Hamakom, alludes to God, Who created both the spiritual and physical space within which creation took place. God is thus "The Place of the world". Yet the world is not God's place in the sense that God cannot be said to be located within the world, though He is certainly present in the world. At the same time God is totally beyond the world.
The place that Jacob reached was the place of encounter with God, the very same place mentioned earlier in the Bible narrative in the account of Abraham's binding of Isaac. God had said to Abraham: "Take your son Isaac and go to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as an offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you... On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw the place from afar... And they came to the place that God told him" (Genesis 22 vv. 2, 4 & 9).
The place that Jacob reached was none other than Abraham's mountain. Jacob arrived there a fugitive stripped of all material wealth. Poor, humbled, vulnerable, all Jacob had was his heart's longing and yearning for God and his willingness to serve Him. Having cast away the coin of this-worldliness from before his eyes, Jacob was ready to climb Abraham's Mountain (see Part I, Doing Your Own Thing).
Abraham's Mountain, Isaac's Field was more than a place of merely sentimental personal meaning for Jacob. It was from the dust of this spot that the body of Adam, father of all mankind, had been formed. This was the place where Noah sacrificed after the flood.
And it was more. According to tradition, this is the very spot that was the "growthpoint" from which the entire Earth emanated at the time of creation. The physical creation -- Yesh, Being -- came forth from Ayin, Nothingness, the higher, undefinable, untouchable spiritual reality. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is thus the exact point at which the physical world intersects with the world of spirit.
The holiest spot on the Temple Mount is the place where the Holy of Holies -- the inner sanctum of the Temple -- stood. The floor of the Holy of Holies consisted of an immense natural stone called Even Shetiyah, the "Foundation Stone". On it stood the golden Ark of the Covenant containing Moses' Tablets of Stone and covered by the golden Kaporet with its two cherubs or angels with outspread wings.
The significance of the Foundation Stone is explained in the following passage from Mishkeney Elyon ("Dwellings of the Most High") by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto on the kabbalistic meaning of the Temple and its design.
When the Creator wanted to create this world He included everything that was to come into being in ten great luminaries [the Sefirot] from which all created beings emerged like branches coming out of the trunk of the tree. Thus there is nothing that does not have its place in the Supreme Chariot.
The last of these ten lights is called Shechinah ("The Indwelling Presence" [Sefirah of Malchut, Kingship]), and everything that exists is rooted there. Understand this well: besides the root that each thing which exists has in the other higher lights, it also has its root in the Shechinah, which is metaphorically called the Mother of Children.
Know that there is one particular place known to her in which all these roots are merged in unity. That place is the root of all things. There the Earth is rooted and all that is in it, the Heavens and the Heavens of the Heavens and all their hosts.
And at this meeting point where all the different roots come together in one place, in the middle can be seen a certain "stone". This stone is most precious. It includes every kind of charm and beauty. This is called Evven Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone. And thus there actually is such a stone in our world here down below in the place of the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
From this stone tracks and pathways extend in all directions leading to all the individual things that exist. Where these paths and tracks start leading off from the stone in all directions they are major general paths. Every single item in creation knows its own path and from these general paths each item takes its specific share of nourishment given to it from the King. Further away from the stone, these major paths divide into countless numbers of smaller tracks, for here are the specific roots of all things from the greatest to the smallest, and every single item has its own track. But the ultimate root of all these tracks and pathways is to be found at the place I mentioned.
Where they all come together in the stone that is in the middle of this place, from there the Creator watches over them and examines all of them with a single glance. Of this it is written: "He fashions the hearts of them all together and discerns all their doings" (Psalms 33:15). For this stone is the very heart of the universe and there everything is joined together in unity under the watch of the King.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov sheds further light on the Foundation Stone:
The world has a foundation stone. Channels emanate from this stone, reaching every land. The Midrash teaches us that the wise King Solomon knew the details of these channels and was therefore able to plant all types of trees. If people knew the exact location of these subterranean channels, they would be able to grow fruit trees even in these lands. They could grow many trees that never grow here now. Each channel has the power to stimulate a particular species. Even if a particular channel does not pass through our land, all channels are intertwined and flow into each other. If one knew the exact place, he could plant any type of tree. If one knew the location of all channels, he could dig a well and know where to plant trees around it. He could then make any type of tree grow. The foundation stone of the world constantly rises and descends. If one knows its position then he knows what to plant at a particular time. All these things are concealed from the world, for some things may not be revealed. People say that the world is gaining knowledge. But earlier generations made the primary discoveries, and this took the greatest wisdom. Later generations make discoveries only because earlier ones prepared the way.
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #60
These teachings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Rebbe Nachman add a new dimension to the concept of energy lines around Earth as discussed in a number of contemporary scientific and spiritual works. The place that Jacob reached is the brain and nerve-center of the entire Earth, with nerves spreading out from it in every direction linking everywhere in creation.
Jacob's quest, then, was for the top, the brain, the "head" of creation. In the account of Jacob's dream the Hebrew word Rosh, "head", appears no less than four times in eight verses. Jacob was in search of the centerpoint and source of all creation, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1). The universe is like a House, a Bayit, fashioned by God as a dwelling-place for His glorious Presence. Jacob was in search of the Rosh Bayit, Head of the House. The Hebrew letters of Rosh Bayit are an anagram of Bereishit, the first word of the Torah, from which all else emanates. Jacob was searching for the point at which the physical world connects with its source, the "Gate of Heaven".
Until now we have focused on the spatial significance of this place. It also has the utmost significance in relation to time.
Just as Jacob arrived there the sun set, ushering in the night. As we have seen, Abraham is associated with sunrise and Morning: "Abraham rose early in the morning" (Genesis 22:3 etc.). Isaac is associated with the declining sun, Afternoon: "Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening" (Genesis 24:63). Jacob's distinctive quality is that of Night, which can be not only a time of physical darkness but also one of spiritual darkness, doubt, uncertainty, insecurity, exile, trouble, torment.... Jacob's task was to take the teachings of his fathers Abraham and Isaac and apply them not just when times are good but even amidst darkness, hardship and difficulty: "Night". Jacob's mission would be to shine the combined light of Abraham and Isaac to light up the darkness through faith and trust in God even in the face of the worst negativity.
It is true that Jacob is also associated with the Sun (Genesis 32:32 and 37:9). This is because he always looked towards the "sun" of Wisdom for inspiration and guidance (see Likutey Moharan I, 1). But it was specifically after he was renamed Israel that Jacob became associated with the sun, which symbolizes Jacob as he will be revealed in all his glory in the future world when the dark side of creation will have been rectified. However, in our present benighted world of toil and pain Jacob is associated with night-time and darkness, a time of searching for God with the torchlight of faith.
Indeed, when the sun goes down, leaving the world to darkness and faith, something amazing happens. As the light fades from the skies, one by one tiny points of light can be seen twinkling in the sky. Gradually we see more and more... until eventually, on a dark night, countless thousands and thousands of stars and star clusters can be seen in every kind of evocative configuration. This glorious canopy could not be seen at all during the day because the stars are too faint to be visible when the skies are lit up by the sun. (Unfortunately for millions and millions of town- and even country-dwellers today, the night-time glow of our civilization simply hides all but the brightest stars, making it impossible ever to see the celestial canopy in anything resembling its true majesty as seen in deserts and other uninhabited areas.)
In a place where the skies can really be seen, the loss of daylight, far from signaling the final fading of perception, actually opens altogether new gates of perception, leading to deeper, subtler understanding. When we see the stars in all their magnificence and contemplate the mysteries of their configurations and the astronomic distances between them, we tiny earthlings can begin to get a faint inkling of the utter vastness of God's universe and the greatness of His works.
"Blessed are You, HaVaYaH our God, Ruler of the Universe: through His word He brings evening, in wisdom He opens the gates and with understanding changes the times and alters the seasons and arranges the stars and planets in their watches in the heavens according to His will" (from the Evening Service).
The lights in the sky were given "to distinguish between the day and the night, and to be for signs and seasons and for days and years" (Genesis 1:14). From earliest times men have used the ever-repeated cycle of sunrise and sunset to measure "days", and they have used the sun's procession through the twelve celestial constellations every 365.25 days -- corresponding to the annual cycle of the seasons -- to measure "years".
A day passes very quickly. A year is quite a long time. People also need intermediary measures of time in order to plan their lives and see through their various current projects and activities. The weekly cycle of six working days followed by the Shabbat day of rest was divinely inbuilt in the very structure of creation, as we see from the first chapter of Genesis. But to measure the months God gave the Children of Israel a particular heavenly sign: the renewal of the moon.
Every twenty-nine and a half days the moon makes a complete orbit around the earth. Seen from earth the moon appears to go through different "phases" in the course of this orbital period owing to the its changing position relative to the earth and the sun. When the moon reaches its furthest point from the sun, the earth is directly aligned between the two of them. At night-time we on earth then see the large round disk of the "full" moon. But as the moon continues its orbit, with every successive night a little more of it seems to have disappeared. Eventually all that's left is a thin crescent. Then, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, it becomes totally invisible.
But immediately afterward this point the endlessly orbiting moon continues its journey and again starts moving away from the sun. And then, for a few brief moments after sunset on a clear evening, the thin crescent of the "new" moon can be seen on the western horizon before it too sets and disappears until the following evening.
"This renewal (Chodesh) will be for you the head of your months (Rosh Chodoshim)" (Exodus 12:2). In this first commandment given by God to the Jewish People, they were taught to measure their months by counting each one from the first sighting of the new moon at the very beginning of its waxing phase. The thin crescent of the new moon is a heavenly sign of renewal. The Hebrew word for month, Chodesh, means renewal!
In Temple times witnesses who had sighted the new moon had to come to Jerusalem to testify before the Beit Din (rabbinical court). Only then would the Beit Din announce that the new month had begun. This was called Kiddush HaChodesh, Sanctification of the Month. Time is more than a meaningless succession of moments. Time is holy if we make it so.
All the different Jewish holy days through the year fall on specific dates in their various months as laid down in the Torah. Since the beginning of the months in Temple times depends upon the sighting new moon, the exact timing of all the various holidays is thus determined by the sanctification of the new month by the Beit Din.
Each of the specific rituals associated with the various holidays has a particular effect on creation as a whole, playing a crucial role in its overall rectification (see below From Month to Month). Understandably, all these effects can come about only if the holiday rituals are carried out at exactly the right heavenly time -- the "time of favor" -- in perfect alignment with the movements of the moon and other celestial bodies. The secret of the renewal of the moon (including the astronomical calculations made by the Beit Din to check that the witnesses could actually have seen it) was considered among the highest pinnacles of rabbinic wisdom.
In Temple times the sanctification of the New Month by the Beit Din -- the key to the sanctification of time by man -- could take place only on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Temple indeed was the central focus in all the rituals carried out on all the festivals throughout the year, the dates of which depended upon Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.
The determination of Rosh Chodesh, the "Head of Renewal" which we use to measure time, thus depends upon the very place that is, as we have seen, the Rosh -- the "head" and brain-center -- of created space, the world. The place that Jacob reached is one where place and time are brought into perfect alignment through the commandment to sanctify the new month in the Temple after the new moon has been witnessed on the western horizon just after sunset. "The sun had gone down".
Jacob's arrival at the Temple Mount brought to this place where Space and Time come together the third division of creation: Spirit. For space, time and spirit are the three fundamental divisions of creation, as taught in Abraham's Sefer Yetzira, where they are called Universe, Year and Soul.
That place on the Temple Mount is the Rosh, braincenter or "Head", of Space. It is at that very spot that Rosh Chodesh, the "Head" of Time, is declared. And now Jacob --a person, Soul -- wanted to put down his head in that very spot in order to bring the three "heads" of Space, Time and Soul together.
"He took from the stones of the place and put them as meRAASHotav, a resting place for his head" (Genesis 28:11). The Hebrew word for "his head-rest", meRAASHotav, contains the letters of the word ROSH, Head.
By taking these stones and making a primitive structure where he could rest for the night on that exposed mountain-top, Jacob built his first rough house.
The house is the vital foundation for all human achievement. Most animals need some kind of home or nest that they either find or make for themselves. When Adam was expelled from the idyllic environment of Eden, his first need after food and clothing was for shelter from the elements, from predators and other threats to his existence. It was when men moved out of caves and started building residential and other structures for themselves that they began to develop the complex technical, economical, social, cultural and spiritual structures we call civilization.
Houses and buildings are the basic spatial units of human civilization. Throughout human history people have lavished resources in building every conceivable kind of structure for their convenience, comfort and glory, "like the glory of a man dwelling in a house" (Isaiah 44:13).
For Jacob, the purpose of the House is not to become a monument to its owner's greed for wealth and material self-indulgence. As creatures of flesh and blood, humans cannot do without a home base where they can rest, relax and attend to their various needs. It is indeed quite in order to aspire to a comfortable, pleasing home environment. "A beautiful home... and beautiful utensils expand a person's mind" (Brachot 57b). But as this very dictum implies, physical beautification of the home is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to serve a higher goal: expansion of the mind, Daat. It is through Daat that man becomes one with God.
For Jacob the primary purpose of the physical house is to serve as our base for spiritual growth and connection with God. The house must be a fitting place for man to pursue Daat, the holy knowledge, insight and awareness that come through study, prayer, meditation, loving interaction with dear ones and friends, pursuit of the mitzvot and the application of God's teachings in all areas of our lives down to our most basic physical functions. Jacob's House, the Temple, is to serve as a model for all mankind of what our houses should be.
"With wisdom the house will be built and with understanding it will be established. And the rooms will be filled with knowledge" (Proverbs 24:3-4)
In terms of the kabbalistic "tree" of the Sefirot, Jacob is the living embodiment of the sefirah of Tiferet, Harmony and Beauty. The place of Tiferet is in the center column of the central triad of sefirot, Chessed-Gevurah-Tiferet. Tiferet mediates between the sefirah of Chessed (Love and Kindness) on the right side of the tree and that of Gevurah (Power and Strength) on the left. The Chessed-Gevurah-Tiferet triad is at the center of the tree above the lower triad of Netzach-Hod-Yesod and below the upper triad of Chokhmah-Binah-Daat.
On the right hand side, Chessed is aligned beneath Chokhmah (Wisdom); on the left side, Gevurah is aligned beneath Binah (Understanding), while in the center, Tiferet is aligned beneath Daat (Knowledge). Tiferet aspires to rise up to Daat and beyond it to Keter, the Crown, the Source of everything.
In the earlier parts of this Course we have discussed how Abraham's quality of Chessed is rooted in Chokhmah while Isaac's quality of Gevurah is rooted in Binah (see Introspection and Contemplation and The Place of Nature Study in Judaism). Jacob, having sat in the tents of his two masters Abraham (Chessed/Chokhmah) and Isaac (Gevurah/Binah), already possessed the qualities needed to build the House: Chokhmah and Binah. For "With wisdom (Chokhmah) the house will be built and with understanding (Tevunot = Binah) it will be established..." (Proverbs 24:3-4). Now that Jacob had reached this place of joining and union, his task was to actually build the House, to join Chokhmah and Binah in a perfect synthesis so as to create a fitting vessel for Daat to dwell in. "And the rooms will be filled with knowledge (Daat)" (ibid.)
Stripped to its barest essentials, a house (Bayit) consists of walls and a roof. The walls divide between the outside world and the private space created between them, while the roof affords protection against the open skies. In the halachah (Torah law), a house is the prime case of Reshut Hayachid, an "individual domain" as opposed to public space outside (the street, the wilderness, etc.) which is Reshut Harabim, a "public domain" where no one person has any more rights than any other.
An individual domain enables the person or people who possess the rights to that domain to go about their activities safe from external dangers, free of outside interference. A house is a place where people can dwell in dignity. In Hebrew, to dwell is leyshev from the root YaShaV. Significantly, the Hebrew phrase for a settled mind is Yishuv Hadaat, literally "the dwelling of Daat". The House must be a place where Daat can dwell. It must be a place conducive to Yishuv Hadaat, clear, settled knowledge and awareness of the One God and of the unity that underlies the diversity of creation. In this sense too the House is Reshut Hayachid, the domain in which unity dwells, as opposed to the outside, Reshut Harabim, the realm of plurality, chaos and confusion.
Secure and calm within the walls of the House, the spiritual seeker can use his powers of Chokhmah and Binah to contemplate the creation and discern how beneath the apparent plurality of Reshut Harabim outside lies the unity, harmony and order of God, the ultimate Yachid, the Only One. Thus "outside" actually becomes "inside", because the chaos and disorder "outside" are joined back to their unified source within God.
The knowledge of God is Daat. Daat is achieved through learning to join Chokhmah-thinking (holistic vision) with Binah-thinking (rational-analytic thought). The two become "joined" when one learns to oscillate constantly between them. For right-brain and left-brain thinking are both necessary. In the words of Abraham's Sefer Yetzira (1:4): "Understand with wisdom; be wise with understanding". We have to learn to see things whole yet understand their parts. We have to understand the parts in terms of the whole, and at the same time see the whole in terms of all its parts.
The combination of right- and left-brain thinking is indispensable in order to build the House. When a person wants to build a house he has first to dream and envisage what it is he wants. Even before he can lay the first stone of the house he must already see in his mind's eye the completed, fully-furnished house with himself actually going about his life there together with his family.... This is right-brain Chokhmah-thinking. But dreaming will not build the house. It is necessary to define and analyze the individual details of the overall vision in order to plan how to execute the project. This is left-brain Binah-thinking. Yet each detail has to be planned and executed with its place in the context of the whole kept constantly in mind.
In order to actually build the physical house it is necessary to take a plurality of stones, bricks and other materials and join them together one by one in order to construct a single whole: the house. Each individual item must be laid in its proper place as required by the plan of the overall structure. "Jacob took from the stones of the place and put a place for his head". The bricks and stones of mental or spiritual structures -- ideologies, philosophies, religious and spiritual pathways, etc. -- are the individual ideas and concepts upon which they are founded. The building-bricks of the words with which we express our ideas are the sounds and letters which make them up.
In the words of Sefer Yetzira:
Two stones build 2 houses. Three stones build 6 houses. Four stones build 24 houses. Five stones build 120 houses. Six stones build 620 houses. From here on go on and calculate that which the mouth cannot speak and the ear cannot hear" (4:16; see Sefer Yetzira for commentary).
The stones of which Sefer Yetzira is speaking are the letters which we join in various permutations in order to make up words. The words themselves are "houses". Each of the particular permutations of letters that we call a word is a "house", a vessel or container that carries and communicates the meaning we attach to the word. The physical sounds make up the "house", and in the house dwells Daat, knowledge, namely the meaning of the word.
Jacob was undoubtedly a master of the methods of letter permutations, prayer and prophecy taught by his teachers Abraham and Isaac. Jacob's work of building his House on this holy spot was very much bound up with the building of spiritual structures through the letters and words of prayer and Torah. "And he slept in that place" (Genesis 28:11). The Hebrew word for "and he slept" -- Vayishkav -- contains an allusion to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Vayishkav contains the words Yesh KaV, "there are Kaph-Bet". Numerically the letters Kaph-Bet = 22.
"There was a ladder set on the ground and its top reached the heavens, and there were angels of God going up and down on it. There was HaVaYaH standing over him..." (Genesis 28:12).
Jacob's dream was a state of supreme prophetic vision, for: "When prophets arise among you, I, HaVaYaH, make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream" (Numbers 12:6).
The dream of the ladder with the angels going up and down was Jacob's prototype "Receiving of the Torah" for himself and all his descendants. Just as the Torah was later given to all the Children of Israel on a Mountain -- Sinai -- so their father Jacob received the Torah on this holy Mount Moriah, the place from which Hora'ah, Teaching, goes out to all the world. Just as Mount Sinai became a green field at the Giving of the Torah, so this spot where Jacob lay, Abraham's Mountain, was also Isaac's Field. And now, rising up above the House Jacob had started to build on this very spot was a "ladder" -- in Hebrew, Sulam. The numerical value of the letters of SuLaM is the same as that of the letters of SINAI (see Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #86).
At the very heart of the Torah that Jacob received on this spot, his Sinai, is the concept of the Sulam, the ladder of ascent. Jacob was at the Rosh, the head and brain-center of the world, the point of interface, the "Gate", between this material creation -- "Earth" -- and the world of spirit -- "Heaven" -- from which it derives. This spot is the "House of God", the place where God "dwells", the place where holy spirit and prophecy are present and accessible to human beings. For this is the "Gate to Heaven", the point of connection between this lower world and the higher.
And the way to get up is on the "ladder"!
Earlier in this Course we have examined how all creation is like a rotating wheel and that this is the primary concept of the Temple (see The Dark Side of Nature). In the words of Rebbe Nachman:
The Temple was in the category of "the superior below and the inferior above".... God is above every transcendental concept, and it is beyond all logic that He should constrict Himself into the vessels of the Temple... But God brought His presence into the Temple and thereby refuted philosophical logic. Philosophy cannot explain how man can have any influence on high. It cannot say how a mere animal can be sacrificed and rise as a sweet savor giving pleasure to God. They explain that this pleasure is the fulfillment of His will, but how can we even apply the concept of desire to God? But God placed His presence in the Temple and accepts the animal as a sweet savor. He made the fact contradict philosophical logic.
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #40
It is most significant that in Jacob's dream he first saw the divine angels going up and and then coming down. In essence, an angel -- in Hebrew a Malach -- is essentially an agent that performs some Melachah, an act of "work", whether physical or spiritual. A Malach is an energy sent by someone to affect someone (or some-thing) else.
Jacob's dream is of an "energy exchange" between Heaven and Earth. And it is the angels coming up from Earth who are initiating the exchange. When man makes the "arousal from below", stirring himself to prayer, sacrifice and other acts of devotion, his words and acts send angels going up the ladder to heaven. It is this that then elicits the coming down of other angels, these being God's agents bringing divine blessings and other favorable influences into this world in response to man's devotion.
In other words, our words and acts of devotion have the power to influence Heaven and bring back a flow of Heavenly influence in return. The lesson of Jacob's Ladder, the Sulam, is the very essence of the Torah and Mitzvot that God later gave at Sinai to all his descendants, "the House of Jacob, the Children of Israel" (Exodus 19:3).
In the dream, God promised Jacob the Land of Israel. Jacob was just about to leave the Land of Israel to go to Charan, the home of Laban. His mission was to spread the blessings of the Land -- the tradition of Abraham -- outwards to all the people on earth, as God had told him: "You will break forth to the west, the east, the north and the south, and all the families of the Earth will be blessed through you and through your seed."
In the course of this mission Jacob and his seed would have to grapple with the worst forces of darkness and evil. But God promised Jacob His protection: "See, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this Land. For I will not abandon you until I have done what I have told you."
Jacob responded with his own act of commitment to God.
"Jacob rose early in the morning and took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its head.... Jacob took a vow, saying: If God will be with me and guard me on this path I am traveling and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I come home in peace to the house of my father, HaVaYaH will be my God. And this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be the House of God and from all that You give me I will set aside a tithe for You" (Genesis 28:16-22).
Jacob's task was to go outwards: to teach not only outstanding prophets but ordinary men, women and children that God is not just in tall mountains and great plains. God is in all the little things of our lives as well, down to our very food and clothes.
Stripped of his wealth, in flight for his life, Jacob was like Adam all over again, cast out of the garden, facing the thorns and thistles of trying to make a living. Sheer physical survival is one of man's greatest trials. Jacob rectified the curse put on Adam by teaching us to put our trust in God and look to Him for everything we need.
One of the most important ways of looking to God is by devoting the first tithe (10%) of everything we "make" or "earn" to God in the form of gifts to charity and other good causes. Knowing that we are going to dedicate the very cream of our money-making efforts to God in this way actually sanctifies and elevates all of our efforts. Making a living can easily turn into a purely selfish, greedy pursuit. Tithing turns it into one that has a higher purpose.
The act of charity by man elicits a flow of charity, kindness and love from God. Jacob committed himself to charity and kindness. He took responsibility. And years later he returned to Beit El, the House of God, to fulfill his vow.
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