By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
Jacob’s dream at Beth-El has fascinated creative folk from his day to ours. The image opens this week’s portion, Vayetzei. “Jacob left Beersheba … came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night … He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”
Earlier translators, you know, indicated a “ladder,” but scholars of cognate languages explain that the ancient word sulam was more likely a “stairway,” a “staircase” or a “ramp.” That is actually helpful to our picturing it. A ladder populated with angels competing to climb up and descend it simultaneously is not very stately. A “stairway” seems a much more majestic connection between earth and heaven.
And if your intention is to get a proper image of what Jacob dreamt, you may also have to change your perception of angels. Innumerable artists have portrayed angels as humans with wings. But ask yourself, if Jacob’s angels had wings, what need would they have for a ladder or a staircase?
(True, some biblical angels are described as winged. In Ezekiel’s vision, for example, there are angels with three pairs of wings! And the cherubim — theangels God placed at the gate to the Garden of Eden to guard it and keep humans out — were also winged creatures. They had the wings of eagles, the body of a bull or lion and the face of a human being. We are all familiar with their appearance because the most famous cherub of all is that wonder of the ancient world, the Sphinx of Egypt. So a better translation for the Hebrew word cherub and its plural cherubimwould be “sphinx” and “sphinxes.” But the angels in Jacob’s dream are not described with wings.)
The Torah describes Jacob’s angels as malachei Elokim, “God’s angels” or “God’s messengers.” And it shows them utilizing a staircase, not flying. So the question is, how should we picture them?
The clue lies in the tricky Hebrew word malach. It surely means “angel” and it also surely means “messenger.” And there is no way to tell which meaning is being expressed — not from the context and not from the word itself. It always means “messenger” and it always means “angel,” and this ambiguity is welcomed in the text of the Torah. In the Talmud, rabbis infer that angels like this embody a message from God. God creates them to deliver the message and, once it is delivered and their mission fulfilled, they simply cease to exist. Another way to say this is that the angel’s mission in life is to deliver the message God assigned specifically to him or to her.
In other words, you might encounter such an angel anywhere on your journey; you might not even know that a message had been exchanged. Angels are messengers, messengers are people; people deliver us messages, people embody messages, people are angels to us. In a sense, our lives are filled with opportunities to receive and pass along God’s messages. Folks who are homeless or forced to beg are human beings being tested. Folks in need of comfort, healing or succor are human beings being tested. You are a human being required to reach out and help them, for you have heard God’s message. They are angels for you, giving you the chance to make yourself a better person. You are an angel for them, giving them a chance to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives. Messages from God help you; messengers from God approach you daily.
The staircase connecting earth to heaven may be invisible in everyday life but it is real. Messengers and messages pass up and down, appear and disappear, communicate and vanish, all at the same time. As Torah tells us, Jacob awoke astounded by this vision: “Surely God is present in this place, and I — I did not know it!”
Maybe now you can imagine the angels on that staircase the way Jacob did — without the wings that artists employ — with human faces, with human bodies, each one of us a unique message with a God-given meaning. It is, after all, humans who translate dreams and visions into realities. If you can see Jacob’s staircase and God’s messengers going up and down it, then you know: Angels really do exist. We are God’s messengers climbing that moral staircase — sometimes we are closer to earth and sometimes we are closer to heaven; sometimes it is our turn to receive a message and sometimes it is our turn to give one.
Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “Alone and Wrestling: An Anthology”; “The Essential Jewish Stories”; “The Wise Folk of Chelm”; “Bible Dreams”; and other books featured at https://RosselBooks.com.