In this week's Torah portion, Vayetze, we read:
(Jacob) dreamed: a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached up to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)
The famous image of angels ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream has been interpreted in many different ways by Jewish commentators over the centuries. One famous midrash suggests that the angels represent prominent empires that would someday rule the world in the distant future.
According to the rabbinic commentators, though mighty nations such as Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome (represented by his brother, Esau) would ascend to a place over power over the Jewish people, Jacob was reassured by God that these nations, like all empires, were eventually fated to “descend” and fall.
This midrash, which was written during a time of communal Jewish disempowerment, the rabbis clearly sought to reassure a small Jewish nation that even though they experienced oppression, no empire, not even the mighty Roman Empire, would last forever.
After all, the Jewish people are still here, even after far mightier empires have come and gone. It might well be said that this allegiance to a Power Yet Greater is the force that keeps alive the hopes of all peoples who have lived with the reality of dislocation and oppression.
This then, is my kavanah (spiritual intention) for this Shabbat Vayetze. How will we, as American Jews, understand our historic relationship to empire? How are we complicit in perpetuating its abuses? And how will we, like Jacob, learn from the historical rise and fall of the nations - and dream a deeper dream of hope for all who are oppressed?
Rabbi Brant Rosen