Vayetze – Counting Sheep
A central theme of Vayetze’s Torah portion is dreams. After setting out from the family household in Be’er Sheva Jacob lay down for a rest. He then dreamed of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. This dream was accompanied by a blessing from God, assuring him that the promises to Abraham would be fulfilled to Jacob’s progeny.
Near the end of the Torah portion Jacob dreamed again. An angel appeared to him, offering sympathy for all of Laban’s deceit. In that dream Jacob saw spotted sheep multiplying, yielding lambs that would belong to Jacob according to his agreement with Laban.
Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein found inspiration in this theme. He noted that there was no great novelty in Jacob’s vision of angels after leaving his family’s home. After all, the household of Isaac was surely imbued with spirituality, with teachings of divinity and godliness. According to the Midrashic account that Jacob spent 14 years studying Torah before crossing the border it is only natural for his angelic dream to occur. The novelty, points out Rabbi Lichtenstein, is that even after living in the house of Laban for over two decades Jacob retained the purity of mind to continue dreaming of angels. The foundations established in his earlier years continued to give him inspiration even in the most immoral and degenerate environments.
However, it is important not to overlook the content of the two dreams. When our bodies relax and our conscious drifts we tend to dream of things that occupy us day to day. Our dreams reflect our present state of mind. In his former dream Jacob perceived a ladder rising to the heavens. Jacob’s headspace was above the clouds, up where the angels were climbing toward. In the later dream Jacob again had angels in his dream. Yes, Jacob still had those aspirations, but the content of his dream was not about the heavens, it was about sheep! Jacob’s day to day reality revolved around the sheep he was herding, and that may have been the impetus for God’s instructions that it was time to leave. When Jacob recounted the dream to his family he related the words of the angel telling him to take note of the spotted goats which were multiplying, “…for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.” (Genesis 31:12) The common interpretation is that God had seen the Laban’s deceit of Jacob and was therefore giving him divine assistance. Another way to read this, however, is that God was telling Jacob that it is time to go because ‘I have seen the degeneration that is beginning to influence you – all you think about all day is sheep.’ This is what Laban was “doing” to Jacob. It was time to leave.
A Hassidic businessman once had to relocate for business to a small town with no Jewish community. As a loyal Hassid he first consulted with his Rebbe, expressing his worry that he might not be able to keep up his devotion and piety in the small town, far from his mentors and peer group. The Rebbe dismissed his concerns and gave him his blessings. Every time this Hassid returned on a visit to the big city he would see the Rebbe and repeat his concerns, and each time the Rebbe dismissed those with a wave of his hand, offering his blessings. One time the Hassid visted the city and as usual he went to see the Rebbe. By now he had grown accustomed to living far away and he did not repeat his concerns about his spiritual wellbeing to the Rebbe. The Rebbe ordered him to return the city. As long as the Hassid was concerned about his spiritual wellbeing the Rebbe was not. Once the Hassid no longer worried, once his dreams had become about sheep, the Rebbe was concerned and felt it was time to come home.