Parshat Vayetze begins with the famous dream of Yaakov in which he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder resting on the group and reaching into heaven. The dream is a revelation, and its rich imagery offers Yaakov a profound understanding of the relationship between heaven and earth and the significance of Jerusalem as the gateway to heaven.
However, what is particularly fascinating is the fact that Yaakov did not plan to sleep in this place. Instead, as our Rabbis explain, it was in response to an unnatural setting of the sun that Yaakov stopped and laid down his head, and as Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg remarks, there is something deeply significant about the fact that Yaakov unknowingly sleeps in a place of such historical and spiritual significance.
Moreover, another significant aspect of this revelation is the fact that Yaakov achieves this deep level of spiritual comprehension when he is asleep such that Yaakov sees and comprehends the most when his eyes are shut. As Dr. Zornberg continues, ‘there is a profound intimation here about the dynamics of sleep, about the loss of consciousness and the possible gifts of unconsciousness, about knowing and dreaming’ (The Beginning of Desire p. 190).
What we see from here is that it is at this moment when Yaakov is at his most vulnerable, when he sleeps in an unknown place and within close range of wild animals (see Rashi on Bereishit 28:11), and when he least expects a communication from God, that he experiences a profound revelation.
As moderns, we often think that spiritual clarity can only come to us through events within our control. But the story of Yaakov’s dream teaches us that divine revelation comes in places and in situations beyond our control, and that it is at the points in our lives when we are truly able to surrender to the divine will that we are able to come closest to the divine.