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PARASHAT VAYETZE 5758
[Yakov] saw in his dream a ladder standing on the ground with its head in the sky, and he saw angels ascending and descending it. (Bereishit 28:12)
Yakov saw the patron-angel of Babylon ascend and descend, the angel of Mede ascend and descend, the angel of Greece ascend and descend and the angel of Rome ascend and descend. Hashem then said to Yakov, "Now you, too, climb the ladder!" Yakov was suddenly fearful. "Perhaps," he said, "just like these angels descended after climbing the ladder, I too will, G-d forbid, have to descend if I climb it." Hashem reassured him, "Do not fear, for if you climb the ladder you will never descend from it." But Yakov did not trust in Hashem and he did not ascend the ladder.
"Nevertheless, they sinned again and they did not have faith in Hashem's wonders" (Tehilim 78:32)... -- this verse refers to our forefather Yakov, who did not have faith in Hashem and did not ascend the ladder. Hashem told Yakov... now that you did not have faith in Me, your children will have to undergo four exiles in this world, during which they will be subject to many forms of taxation. (Midrash Raba Vayikra 29:2; Tanchuma Vayetze #2)
Although the story of Yakov's famous dream is well known, not many know the strange epilogue described by the Midrash. Yakov refuses to ascend the ladder at Hashem's bidding. Due to this odd "sin," his descendants will be subject to many years of harsh exile.
The words of the Midrash require further elucidation:
Our Midrash undoubtedly contains within it numerous teachings. It was meant to be understood in many different ways, each consistent with a different Masoretic approach to the Torah. Let us try to understand it at least on a simple level.
(1) It is clear from the Torah that Yakov's dream was a prophetic vision. As such, it is reasonable to assume that Hashem's command that Yakov ascend the ladder, and Yakov's punishment for not doing so, were not so much a sin as a prophetic *warning*. Yakov was just leaving the land of Israel for a stint in the Diaspora. He was being warned that there would come a time when he would be expected to, metaphorically, "ascend the ladder." Should he hesitate at that point due to a lack of faith, Hashem warned him, it would result in his children being sent into exile.
When was that point? It would appear that it involved the period when Yakov returned to the land of Israel after 20 years of service in the house of his uncle Lavan. Hashem was warning Yakov to return proudly to the land that "leads to the sky." The word "ascend" is appropriate, since traveling towards Eretz Yisrael is called "ascending" ("Aliyah"), in the words of our Sages -- Zevachim 54b).
His punishment is an appropriate one. For bowing down to Esav, Esav will be made his superior. Yakov will be *subjugated* to him during long years of exile. For showering his wealth on Esav needlessly, he will be *taxed* mercilessly during those years.
(3) Why should his descendants suffer such an extensive punishment for Yakov's sin?
Our strength as a nation is deeply rooted in the faultlessness of our great ancestors, the three Patriarchs. It was they who laid the foundation upon which the nation was built by imbuing in their offspring their love for and fear of Hashem. Even the tiniest fault in the foundation of a large structure can cause an enormous instability in its upper stories.
Yakov's fear of Esav reflected an otherwise insignificant flaw in his fear of Hashem since, as the Chovas ha'Levavos writes, true fear of Hashem leaves no room for any other fears. This flaw was amplified in his descendants, and it eventually brought them to sin in such a way that many years of exile were required to rectify their sin. Thus, the Midrash is justified in suggesting that the verse, "*they* sinned... *they* did not have faith...," referring to a lack of faith among the Jews who had fled Egypt, at the same time reflects a flaw in our forefather Yakov.
Perhaps we can even single out exactly at which point this flaw in their faith affected the Jewish People. Just as Hashem promised to protect Yakov and to return him safely to the land of Israel, so did He promise his descendants. And just as Yakov's weakness was expressed at that point, the weakness of his descendants was expressed at that point as well.
The Jews, already standing on the border of the Holy Land, suddenly got cold feet. They asked Moshe to send spies into the land to determine their chances for a successful conquest. Instead of encouraging the people that the land was as beautiful as had been promised, the returning spies cause the people's hearts to sink with their tales of the might of the fearsome natives. And just as Yakov had been thrown off by the fear of his brother Esav, the last straw in the spies' argument was that the infamous nation of Amalek, Esav's grandchild, was waiting in the South to attack the Jews as they enter the land of Israel (Bamidbar 13:29). "Why did Hashem bring us to this land," they wept, "to fall by our enemy's sword!" (ibid. 14:3).
We indeed find that the eventual exile of the Jewish People was related to this sin. As the Mishnah tells us (Ta'anis 26b), on the very same day of the year that the Jews cried over the discouraging reports of the spies, both the first and the second Temples were destroyed by the enemy. Any Jews who survived the enemy's merciless onslaught were exiled.
However, along with the key to our defeat, Yakov's dream contains the key to our redemption. As the Midrash tells us, "We find that when the Jews are in exile, they will only return to their land in the merit of their *faith* in Hashem" (Yalkut Shimoni 2:519). May Hashem grant us the strength to merit the final return to Zion, speedily, in our days!
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