What Yaakov’s mysterious dream teaches us about Torah education.

We all know the story, but we might not fully understand what it really means.

As Yaakov journeys from Eress Yisrael toward an uncertain future with his wily uncle, Lavan, he sleeps along the roadside and beholds a mysterious dream.  A ladder is stationed near his head and extends to the heavens, and the patriarch sees angels ascending and descending the ladder.  Gd obviously showed Yaakov this vision for a reason, to convey an important message both for himself and for his progeny.  After all, as our sages famously teach us, “Ma’aseh avot siman labanim – The events experienced by the patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.”  All major events of Jewish history have their origin and roots in the lives of our patriarchs, and we should thus expect this dream to serve as a harbinger of some future event.

Sure enough, the Midrash comments that Yaakov’s dream foreshadowed the experience of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Sinai, when Gd appeared to the Nation of Israel and gave them the Torah.  The ladder, the Midrash explains, symbolizes Mount Sinai.  Its legs implanted in the ground correspond to Bene Yisrael who stood at the foot of the mountain during the Revelation, and the heavenward extension represents the fire that burned during Matan Torah and is described as extending to the heavens.  The angels parallel Moshe and Aharon, who first ascended the mountain and then came back down to the people.  And just as Gd is described as appearing near the ladder, Gd appeared to the people at Sinai to give them His Torah.

The Midrash’s comments provide us with but half an answer, leaving the other half for us to explore.  It informs us that Yaakov’s dream was a prophetic vision of Matan Torah, but we are left with the question of why Yaakov beheld this vision specifically now, at this critical juncture in his life, when he flees from his brother to the foreign land of Haran.  Why was this occasion the opportune moment for Gd to show the patriarch his descendants’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai?  What connection is there between the Revelation and Yaakov’s escape from his brother?

Controversy in the Heavens

Our search for an answer begins with the Talmud’s remarkable account of an argument that raged in the heavens at the time of Matan Torah.  Moshe, likely anticipating a relatively straightforward sojourn in the heavens when he ascended to receive the Torah, encountered stiff resistance from the angels.  The Torah, the angels contested, is sacred and sublime.  Its rightful place is the pristine conditions of the heavens, very far from the flawed and contaminated earth.  Who, they argued, are more suited to serve as guardians of Gd’s sacred law if not the heavenly angels, who are incapable of wrongdoing, who serve Gd with robotic instinct, without any inclination to do otherwise?  Certainly, the Torah should not be entrusted with inherently flawed and fickle creatures such as human beings!

We know the end of the story – the Torah was given to us, and it has belonged to us ever since.  But what was Gd’s response to the angels’ seemingly cogent contention?

The Talmud answers, somewhat obscurely, that Gd responded to the angels by recalling their visit to Avraham Avinu.  As we read toward the beginning of Parashat Vayera, three angels visited Avraham to inform him that his wife would bear a child, before continuing on to destroy the sinful city of Sedom as Gd commanded.  At Avraham’s home, the angels enjoyed fresh water, a robust meal, and the comfortable shade.  Gd drew the angels’ attention to this experience as a compelling reason to send the Torah down from the heavens to the realm of human beings.

The obvious question arises, why should this experience in Avraham’s tent affect the destiny of the Torah?  How did the angels’ visit demonstrate the Jewish people’s worthiness to serve as guardians of Gd’s law?

Are Angels Always Angelic?

It is likely that in His refutation of the angels’ argument, Gd referred not just to the angels’ experiences as Avraham’s guest, but also to the events that immediately followed.

The Torah relates that after taking leave of Avraham’s tent, the angels made their way to the condemned city of Sedom, where they were to rescue Avraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.  In announcing the city’s imminent destruction, the angels proclaimed, “Ki mash’hitim anahnu et hamakom hazeh – For we are destroying this place” (Beresheet 19:13).  Our sages teach that the angels were punished for taking “credit” for the city’s destruction.  It was Gd, not the angels, that overturned Sedom, and the angels’ announcement that “we are destroying this place” was an expression of arrogance.  Gd punished the angels for their brazen remark by imposing a 138-year “suspension.”  For the next 138 years, these angels were not given any assignments, so that they would learn that they do not act independently, and are merely agents and messengers sent by the Almighty.

When we read this story, we must ask, how does an angel commit a sin?  Angels, unlike human beings, do not have an evil inclination, and in fact do not have free will.  They are naturally driven to fulfill the divine will, without any urge or even slight desire to do otherwise.  How could an angel make the mistake of attributing to itself independent power?  How is it possible for angels to make this kind of mistake, or any mistake?

The answer is profound, and sends us a chilling warning about how we are affected by our environment.

When missvot are performed in a certain location, that spot becomes endowed with sanctity.  The place might not look different from any other, but the sanctity is there and has an impact upon anyone who is there.  And the converse is also true.  Sinful conduct affects the quality of the place where it occurs, and it has a contaminating influence upon the people who go there.  Thus the Mishna teaches in Pirke Avot, “Two people who sit and no words of Torah are spoken – this is the company of scoffers.”  If Jews spend time together in a certain location and are not inspired to share any meaningful words, to engage in some kind of Torah discussion, then we may assume that this place had been previously occupied by “scoffers,” and was contaminated by the vain chatter and gossip spoken there.  This is the only explanation for why Jews would get together and waste time; it can only be that the location is polluted by sinful conduct that took place there, and this quality adversely affected the people who sat down at this spot.

It seems that even angels are not immune to this effect.  Although they are inherently drawn to the faithful service of their Creator, they can nevertheless be tainted by the forces of impurity that prevail in places of sin.  And this was certainly the case in Sedom.  Our sages tell us that Sedom was overrun by crime, greed, violence and immorality.  The city’s population committed the most grievous and horrific offenses against both man and Gd.  If there was ever a place on earth that created a contaminating environment, it was Sedom.  And this explains what happened to the angels.  As pure and pristine as they were, exposure to the environment of Sedom affected them, if only slightly, thus accounting for their mistake in crediting themselves with Sedom’s destruction.

We can perhaps now begin to understand Gd’s response to the angels’ protest.  He recalled how even they, heavenly angels, were faithful servants of the Creator in Avraham’s home, but rapidly fell from their sublime stature as soon as they entered Sedom.  This precedent is the most compelling argument of all for granting the Torah to mankind.  Without the Torah, human beings are naturally drawn toward sinful behavior.  Negative influence pulls us down like a magnetic force, and we therefore need something stronger to keep us afloat.  And that force is supplied only by Torah study.  It is the Torah that fortifies us against the threat of negative influences, and empowers us to oppose them.  For this reason, Gd gave us the Torah.  The angels’ argument was flawed because they themselves experienced firsthand the effects of exposure to sinful influence.  And if they can fall prey – even slightly – to these influences, human beings are certainly susceptible, and much more so.

Learning the Lesson of the Angels

As mentioned, the angels were “suspended” for a period of 138 years.  This period came to an end the night Yaakov Avinu fled from Eress Yisrael to Haran.  The angels he saw descending the ladder from the heavens were those same angels who had gone to Sedom, who were now returning to the earth for their first assignment in 138 years.  And that assignment was to accompany Yaakov during his sojourn in the house of his corrupt, idolatrous uncle, Lavan.

Over the next 20 years, the angels would bear witness to the enormous challenge posed by exposure to sinful influence.  They would see firsthand the kind of pressure to which Yaakov would be subjected as he lived with and worked for his crooked uncle.  And they would also see how it was only his steadfast commitment to Torah that protected him from this influence and enabled him to withstand the pressure.  Yaakov would eventually emerge from this experience spiritually whole, but due solely to his engagement in Torah.  After completing their 138-year suspension, the angels were dispatched to learn that only Torah can shield us from negative influence.

A famous verse in Mishle admonishes, “Ki lekah tov natati lachem – Torati al ta’azovu – For I have given you good merchandise – do not abandon my Torah.”  The word lekah (“merchandise”) has the numerical value of 138.  King Shelomo here teaches us to learn the lesson of the 138 years, to take note of the fact that even angels cannot always avoid the effects of sinful influence.  This realization must lead to the conclusion of “Torati al ta’azovu,” that we must never neglect or abandon the Torah.  Once we recognize how easily we are affected by improper behavior, how even just the atmosphere of Sedom and other places of sin can threaten to push us off course, we must make a firm, resolute commitment to engage in intensive Torah study and make education our very highest priority.

We now understand why our sages draw a connection between Yaakov’s dream and the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai.  The angels’ descent to accompany Yaakov teaches us the crucial message of Matan Torah – that we need the Torah to guide us along our journey through life, and to protect us from the strong cultural winds that threaten to blow us off track.  As the angels – who were themselves affected by the atmosphere of Sedom – descended from the heavens after a 138-year suspension, they heralded the event of Matan Torah, by reminding us of the reason why Gd sent His precious, sacred Torah to us mortals here on earth.  He did so because we cannot hope to find our way without it, because it is the armor that shields us from the onslaught of negative spiritual influences.

Getting Our Priorities Straight

This message assumes particular importance in today’s day and age, when society has become so degenerate and its influence so pervasive.  We are seeing today the dreadful combination of steadily declining moral standards and the rapid increase of media exposing us to those standards.  Just several years ago, we were warning of how technology threatens to bring the worst of contemporary culture into our homes.  Today, the problem is not only in the home; we now carry it in our pockets wherever we go.

Now more than ever, we need to shield ourselves from the pernicious effects of the society around us.  If the heavenly angels were tarnished once they stepped foot within the borders of Sedom, then we can only imagine the risk we face being relentlessly bombarded by a culture defined largely by permissiveness, indulgence, and lack of restraint.  And the best – and the only – means of protection that we have is Torah education.  When the winds of negative influence blow with gale force, we need to fortify ourselves, our families and our communities with even greater intensity and rigor.

This message is especially critical to internalize at a time when the cost of yeshiva education has skyrocketed and poses a daunting challenge to many families. It is no secret that tuition has become the most pressing issue facing the American Orthodox Jewish community. As a rabbi in a community with over 99 percent enrollment in yeshiva day schools, I am fully aware of the problem and of the encouraging efforts that are being made by capable and devoted individuals to find a workable solution.  I am confident and optimistic that, with Gd’s help and with the continued efforts of the Orthodox Jewish community, a solution will be found.  One thing, however, must be clear: the quality of Torah education can never be compromised.  Cutting corners on our children’s Torah learning is not an option.  There are many areas in which we can cut corners.  We can limit the frequency and lavishness of our vacations; scale down the cost of weddings and bar mitzvas; drive ordinary cars; and furnish our homes tastefully but simply.  If Orthodox Jewish life is becoming too costly, we can find many places to cut expenses.  But Torah education must never be placed on the chopping block.  This has always been, and must continue to be, our community’s highest priority and foremost responsibility to our children and our future.

Yaakov needed a great deal of protection before moving in with his uncle Lavan.  Today’s Jew needs protection each and every moment, not only before he leaves his house, but before he turns on his computer or mobile device.  Torah is what provides us with this protection, and therefore our standards of Torah education must be raised, not lowered.  We were given the Torah precisely for this purpose, precisely for times such as ours, when we are so vulnerable to foreign influences.  Let us therefore bolster our commitment to our own study and to raising the standards of our children’s education, and thereby ensure our safe passage through the tempestuous waters of contemporary culture.