June 16, 2019

Angels and Dreams

“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read” (Bavli, Berachot 55a).

This week’s Torah reading begins with the dramatic image of Jacob, having just departed for Haran, having one of the most famous dreams in religious history: 

“And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward: and behold! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

Commonly known as “Jacob’s Ladder,” the subject of this one line has sparked articles, books, philosophies, dream interpretation techniques, the study of “angelology,” meditative practices of moving up and down a celestial ladder and more, as the hidden implications of the verse lend themselves to a deeper and deeper understanding. The very concept of what an angel is, how it is created, its purpose, and even the importance of dreaming seem to beg for an investigation that transcends “normal” and enters the world of mysticism and spirituality.

The Oral Torah has a lot of material on both angels and dream interpretations, and Tractate Berachot contains pages devoted almost entirely to explaining the symbols of a dream and the importance of dreaming. Similarly, the concept of angels as messengers of God, their purposes and all things “angelic” are dealt with in detail in both biblical and rabbinic texts. 

Angels and a Celestial Court are discussed throughout the Bible, and we even find some of them being named in the Book of Daniel. The rabbis had many discussions about angels, including not only what they do but even when they were created. “From every utterance that goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed by He, an angel is created” (Chagigah 14a). 

But if angels stem from God, then how can they be “ascending and descending” Jacob’s ladder? By putting “ascending” first, the text suggests that they are starting here in an earthly realm, which seems contradictory to them coming from heaven.

Much of Jewish mysticism is based on the power of prayer as a result of this verse in the Torah. Tikunei Zohar teaches that all of prayer is based on this model of angels ascending and descending, and that the rungs of Jacob’s ladder are a symbol for our prayers arising through “the four worlds,” the levels of existence as understood by our mystics. Prayer, and the moving of these angels in Jacob’s dream, are parallel understandings of how to change the world.

By “arousing himself from below,” a person forms a desire to become better, more aware, more conscious, etc. When these desires are put into action through study, prayer, charity and good deeds, these actions become angels that go up the ladder to heaven. They then draw down angels from heaven to help the person with their desires to become better people and help manifest their initial prayers. 

Jewish mysticism believes that by changing our actions in the physical world, we affect the spiritual heavens, which then return and affect our physical reality. This entire model of how prayer works successfully is found in this one verse of this week’s portion.

But so what? How does all this mysticism about angels and dreams help make the world a better place and create peace in the world?

Years ago, I attended a class at a Los Angeles temple with my friend and teacher Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, who was in town from Jerusalem. When someone asked how “spirituality” and “mysticism” can create peace, he gave an exquisitely beautiful answer: “This is not a war between Jew and Arab, it is a war between good and evil … and there is good and evil on both sides. It is being fought in the spiritual realms and we are acting it out here. What we need to do is sing, dance and pray together; because when we do these things, angels are born. These angels will then fight the war for good and we will have peace here in this world as a result.”

An idealistic and beautiful concept based in the mysticism of our tradition and this week’s Torah portion, it also puts the onus of responsibility on each of us to act in ways that birth our own angels for good. Then they, like the ones in Jacob’s dream, may arise and return with blessings.

Each Shabbat, we sing “Shalom Aleichem,” in which we ask the angels of peace to come and bless us. May we each act righteously every day and create more angels that not only bless us, but the entire world, with health, sustenance and peace.


RABBI MICHAEL BARCLAY is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha (nersimcha.org) in Westlake Village and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.