Cosmic Hubris

In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob steals the blessing and the birthright from his brother Esau. In the beginning of this week’s portion, Jacob is running to his uncle’s house to evade his brother’s wrath. As he is leaving, he stops for the night. We read, “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12) What is the significance of this vision?

A couple of weeks ago Avraham was sitting in his tent when he was visited by three angels. According to the Talmud Bava Metzia 86b, each angel was sent with a unique mission. In the words of Rashi, it is not possible that one angel is sent to perform two missions. Every individual thing in the universe seems to be sustained by a unique angel. As we read in the Midrash, “Rabbi Simon said: You will not find a single blade of grass that does not have its angel in the heavens that strikes it and says to it “Grow!”” (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 10:6) The Rabbis were fascinated with the single-minded nature of an angel because it serves as a foil for the creative and willful nature of human beings. An angel might just be nothing more than a human perception of God’s will, whereas human beings by nature are a product of their own will. How is the image of Jacob’s ladder affected by this understanding of the nature of angels and human beings?

From his birth, Jacob’s nature is as a homebody. We read, “Jacob was a pure man, dwelling in tents.” (Genesis 25: 28) For him to undertake his journey  away from home Jacob will have to transform himself totally. For him to inherit the blessing of Avraham he has to leave the comfort of that tent and recreate himself. This dream represents his willful transformation. He will need new angels to sustain him in the rest of his journey. This transformation culminates when he returns to confront his brother. In that moment, it is not just a vision of the changing of the angels in his life, but physically wrestling an angel. Would that boy in the tent have been able to confront that angel? In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.Human beings are not angels, but our chutzpah, cosmic hubris,  to transform our very nature is what makes us divine.

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