Angels or Sheep?

Parashat Vayetzei – Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

As this portion begins, Jacob is fleeing home, running for his life from his brother Esau. He is going east to be with relatives he has never met. Never has he been so far from home. Never has he crossed over the borders of Canaan. Questions race through his head: “Will I ever see my parents again? Will I ever go home?”

With rocks for his pillow, Jacob lies down and falls asleep. He dreams of a sulam, a ladder or ramp, with angels going up and down, up and down. And at the top is Jacob’s ancestral God, who reassures him that God would always be with him wherever he went and would someday bring him home. Jacob names the place Beth El, the Home of God. Beth El represents the border between Jacob’s home and his exile, leaving behind his past and walking towards his future. Holding on to his dream, Jacob crosses over.

Jacob finds his cousin Rachel and is smitten. Deeply in love, he vows to work seven years in her father Laban’s flocks. But in the dark of the wedding tent, Laban substitutes Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Clearly, Laban is a less than savory character.* We first met him in an earlier portion when Abraham’s servant found Laban’s sister, Rebecca, as a possible wife for his master’s son. A “material man,” Laban sees only the wealth this stranger would bring if Rebecca were to marry the son of the rich man from Canaan. Laban has an agenda of his own.

Returning to this week’s parashah, Jacob vows to care for Laban’s sheep for another seven years in order to marry Rachel. He then works another six years to tend to and build up Laban’s flock, as well as his own. Throughout those 20 years, Laban cheats and exploits Jacob, but, with divine oversight, Jacob’s flocks flourish. Still, he is never at home working for his father-in-law, and begins to extricate himself and his family from Laban’s grip. He brings Leah and Rachel out to the field to explain why this is the time to leave their home. There, Jacob shares with them a dream he had just had. His dream was about sheep. In Jacob’s dream, the male sheep were going up upon the female sheep, resulting in more sheep.

According to some, it was this dream that tells Jacob it is time to leave. Thinking back to his dream 20 years earlier, he realizes how much his dreams have changed on the Laban side of the border. The dream at Beth El was very different than his latest dream, but the two dreams had one thing in common. In each dream, there was something or someone going up. In his youth, he dreamt of angels going up on a ladder that linked heaven and earth and reached all the way to God. Now, the only thing that is going up is mating sheep. Before, he was dreaming of angels. Now, he is dreaming of sheep. And if his dreams are so altered, it must be a reflection of how much of what was important in his life has changed and how much of who he had been was left behind. To be sure, Jacob worked hard to provide for his growing family, as parents must. But had he been so embedded in his father-in-law’s culture of avarice, so determined to accumulate his own wealth, that the materialism of those around him skewed his character to the point of invading his dreams? Was he so consumed with the material needs of the present that he let go of the dream at Beth El? Had he repressed or simply ignored the life of the spirit that was once was his? Now it was time to face his past and reclaim his angels. It was time for Jacob to return home.

And what of our dreams? Those of us who are, or have been, providers know that when others depend on us, our lives – even our dreams – are no longer entirely our own. And that can be true even when we are not providers. But are there parts of us we’ve left behind at our own Beth El? Are there parts of us, precious, inner parts that we have ignored because they were fanciful, imaginative, spiritual, and visionary but not “practical?” What is populating our dreams today, angels or sheep? As it was for Jacob, is it time for us to cross back over and return home?

*According to the Rabbis, Laban is the “Aramean” of whom we read in the Haggadah who tried to destroy our family.

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