Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Hidden in the shadow of Yaakov’s dramatic dream at Beit E-l is a second dream, experienced by the patriarch and recorded in Parshat Vayeitzei.
Unlike the first, this second dream is not recorded directly as it occurs. We learn about it only secondhand when, at the end of twenty years in the house of Lavan, Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that the time has come to return to Canaan. In the course of the discussion the patriarch says:
And it was at the time of the mating of the flock that I raised my eyes and saw in a dream: And behold all of the goats mounting the flocks were ringed, speckled and checkered. And an Angel of God said to me in the dream, “…Lift up your eyes and see that all the goats mounting the flocks are ringed, speckled and checkered; for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. I am the God of Beit E-l where you anointed a pillar and where you made me a vow; now arise, leave this land and return to the land of your birth.”
Yaakov’s vision of sheep clearly relates to the financial agreements which he had made with Lavan and to Lavan’s attempts to undermine those agreements. At the beginning of his last six years in his father-in-law’s house, Yaakov arranged that his payment would consist of any unusually marked or colored animals born to the flocks under his care. Lavan attempted to manipulate the flocks to minimize the birth of such animals.
What, however, is the relationship between the symbolism and substance of this second dream? There seems to be no clear connection between Yaakov’s vision of sheep and the divine commandment to return to his homeland.
Why, in addition, does the angel in the dream refer to himself as the emissary of the “God of Beit E-l,” and why does he makes specific reference to Yaakov’s vow?
Clearly bothered by the disconnect between the vision and the message of Yaakov’s dream, the Ramban maintains that Yaakov is actually describing the content of two separate dreams to his wives.
The first of these dreams, which consisted of the vision of sheep, occurred towards the beginning of the six-year period during which Yaakov was to be paid through the receipt of the unusually marked animals. With this vision God was informing the patriarch that divine intervention would overcome Lavan’s machinations.
The second dream, says the Ramban, occurred at the end of the six years, right before Yaakov spoke to his wives. In this dream the angel appeared and informed Yaakov that the time had come to return to Canaan.
Other commentaries maintain that Yaakov was referring to one unified dream. They differ, however, as to the message conveyed by that vision.
Rashi, for example, sees the dream as emphasizing God’s miraculous protection of Yaakov’s welfare. He quotes the Midrashic tradition which pictures heavenly angels overcoming Lavan’s deceit by physically returning to Yaakov sheep that Lavan had unfairly appropriated. The Ralbag explains the dream as underscoring the partnership between God and man. Yaakov’s own efforts are supplemented by God’s support.
Neither of these approaches, however, seems to address the apparent disconnect between the vision and the angel’s message to return home.
The Malbim connects the disparate segments of the dreams by suggesting that God’s message is: “Stay in this place no longer, so that you will no longer have to rely upon miracles to succeed.” The Rivash, on the other hand, sees the unified message as: “Don’t think that because God is protecting you, you can at last relax and bask in your success. God is now commanding you to return to Canaan.”
Finally, it has been suggested that Yaakov’s second dream can be connected to his first vision at Beit E-l, yielding an entirely different approach. Seen in context, the two dreams recorded in Parshat Vayeitzei emerge as contrasting end points in Yaakov’s philosophical journey over his years in exile.
When Yaakov leaves the home of his parents and embarks on the path to Charan, he dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Towards the end of his journey, after twenty years in the house of Lavan, when the patriarch dreams again, he dreams of sheep.
The message of that second dream may simply be: Yaakov, when you stop dreaming of angels and start dreaming of sheep, it’s time to go home.
The words of the angel who appears in Yaakov’s second dream are, thus, to be interpreted as follows:
“I have seen what Lavan is doing to you.” I have seen how your father in-law has changed you. You no longer set your sights upon the heavens. Your focus is, instead, upon material gain.
“I am the God of Beit E-l where you anointed a pillar and where you offered to me a vow; now arise and leave this land and return to the land of your birth.” Remember that morning at Beit El when you vowed to return? The time has come to fulfill your vow before it is too late; return to your roots before you are unalterably changed.
Points to Ponder
The frightening possibility that Yaakov needed prodding from God to return and fulfill his vow serves as a cautionary reminder of the powerful allure of material wealth and of its potential effect on our lives. Jewish tradition clearly acknowledges the value of self-sufficiency and underscores that the physical world is a gift from God, meant to be appreciated and enjoyed. The attainment of material wealth, however, should never become the primary focus of our lives. When that happens, and it can easily happen without our conscious realization, wealth becomes a god, effectively supplanting lofty principles and ideals with pedestrian, limited dreams.
Simply put, when we stop dreaming of angels and we start dreaming of sheep, it’s time to go home.