At the conclusion of last week's Torah portion, Jacob bid his parents farewell and sets off from Beersheva, heading north in the general direction of Padan Aram to find a wife. At the beginning of Parashat Va'yetzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3), Jacob has stopped for the night. The reader might have the impression that Jacob’s excursion was brief and uneventful. But it was just the opposite. The Oral Torah expands on the narrative to reveal that Jacob had just survived an ambush by a band of brigands led by his nephew, Eliphaz, the son of Esau. Eliphaz was only thirteen, but already a formidable hunter on par with his father. It was Esau who had dispatched him to intercept Jacob and kill him. When Eliphaz eventually caught up with Jacob, he was prepared to put him to death but was so moved by Jacob’s plea for mercy that he relented. Elizphaz knew that Esau would be furious when he heard that Jacob had been spared, so hoping to assuage his father’s anger, he took all of his uncle's possessions, including his gold and silver, leaving Jacob in utter poverty.
The destitute Jacob found his way to Mount Moriah. The description of the site is simply HaMakom, literally The Place. Throughout the Hebrew text of the Torah it is referenced in this manner. For example, in the commandment to only bring offerings to the Temple, the phrase HaMakom appears:
"This you may do only on the place that G-d your Lord will choose from among the tribes, as a dwelling established in His name. It is there that you shall go to seek his presence. " — Deuteronomy 12:5
What is so special about The Place?
A weary Jacob beds down for the night falling into a deep REM sleep. He is treated to a propitious scene that opens with a magnificent structure set upon the earth reaching to heavens. On it, angels are ascending and descending. This structure, usually translated as "ladder", is called a sulam. It's a unique word since Parashat Va'yetzei is the only place it is found in the entire Torah. The distinctive quality of the word is a hint that Jacob's dream is profound and richly layered. As we read on, it will be apparent to the reader that sulam represents the vital existential connection between heaven and earth.
We shall scrutinize the delicate symbolic strands of the sulam for a deeper understanding.
As a general rule, in the Torah, when a plural is given without a specific numerical designation, the plural means two. There are angels going up the ladder-like sulam and angels going down. Therefore, there are four angels in the dream. Malakim, the Hebrew word for angels, simply means messengers. Now, consider that there are four nucleotide bases found on the ladder-like spiral of the DNA strand: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. These four provide the formation of all living matter and, according to geneticists, those four simply serve as messengers.
Linguist Isaac Mozeson tells us that a better translation for sulam is "ramp" and its actual meaning suggests a slanted ascent. There are hints that sulam is the Hebraic root for a word known to all Olympic skiers — slalom. If we visualize someone speeding downhill through a slalom course, their tracks resemble a flattened spiral.
DNA is a double helix, a spiral, ladder-like structure
Four angels move up and down on "Jacob’s Ladder" as messengers
Four nucleotide bases act as messengers
The sulam in the Torah can be the spiraling DNA strand that connects heaven and earth.
Today, one of the concepts we can derive from the above is that the sulam is a double-helix coiling upwards from Mount Moriah to heaven recalling the creation of Adam from the dust of that very same site. There are other basic associations that we can draw from Jacob's dream.
The four angels can also be likened to the Mishmarot, the four orders of the kohanim mentioned in 1st Chronicles 24:1-19. Each order served in the Temple for a specific week, rotating their duties throughout the year. Additionally, there is an astonishing connection between DNA and and Kohanim. Decades ago, a specific genetic marker was discovered in the DNA of modern descendants of the kohanim. Significant numbers of Jewish males, many with Levitical surnames (Coen, Cohn, Levine, Lewis, etc) carry a unique genetic marker called the Cohen Modal Haplotype. Accoding to a 2009 study, conducted in part by Dr Karl Skorecki at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, this genetic marker:
"...predominates in both Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Cohanim and is remarkably absent in non-Jews."
The genetic marker emerged just over 3,000 years ago, thus supporting the principle that the Aaronic priesthood was established and passed directly from fathers to sons, just over 3,300 years ago:
"...they will be priests to Me. It will be done so that their anointing will make them an eternal priesthood for all generations." — Exodus 40:15
There is also a link between this hereditary priesthood, the sulam and Sinai. The words sulam and Sinai, as well as the phrase Ha Kohanim all have the same gematria of 130. The relationship between Sinai, the priests and the sulam should be obvious.
The most accessible meaning of the dream can be found in the very words spoken by G-d to Jacob. The creator unveils an expansive historical panorama of Israel’s relationship to the land and how, as a nation, they will be an instrument used by G-d to spread His goodness around the planet:
"I am God, Lord of Abraham your father, and Lord of Isaac. I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All families on the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants."
— Genesis 28:13-14
My teacher, the late Vendyl Jones, of blessed memory, taught that the spiraled sulam represented Israel’s central role in the development of humanity. As Vendyl loved to say, “Israel is the radial axis of history.” The sages also saw the sulam in much the same way. Israel is literally at the center of all things. The spiraled shape alludes to the cyclical nature of history as it revolves around the Jewish nation. Israel is central to the fate of the nations, literally all families on the earth.
Prophetically, each angel represents the four world empires that would ascend to power and then descend. Each rung of the sulam represented a year. In his dream, Jacob watched as Babylon’s angel climbed 70 rungs and descended. The angel of the Persian Empire went up 52 rungs then climbed back down. The angel of Greece was the next to ascend, going up 180 rungs of the ladder before descending. However, Jacob was shaken to see the angel of Edom climb out of sight. Jacob’s fears are eased when HaShem tells him that even though Esau’s influence as Edom would extend far into the future, he would not reach the Throne of G-d. The prophet Obadiah speaks of Esau/Edom’s ultimate fate:
"The pride of thy heart hath beguiled thee, O thou that dwelt in the clefts of the rock, thy habitation on high; that say in thy heart: 'Who shall bring me down to the ground?' Though thou make thy nest as high as the eagle, and though thou set it among the stars, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD." — Obadiah 1:3 - 4
The idea of obscuring the final ascent of Edom can also be found in the Book of Daniel when the prophet is told to “seal up the book.” His writings portray Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome as prophetic emblems that appear in the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. Those nations figured profoundly in the landscape of the Jewish experience, but we might wonder why Egypt and Assyria are missing from these visions. The answer can be found in the placement of the ladder in the dream. These angelic representatives travel up and down the sulam in Jacob's dream, on the very site of the future Temple. This aspect alone sets the Big Four apart from Egypt and Assyria. The ascendancy of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome is marked by their control of Israel’s holiest site but Egypt and Assyria never controlled or destroyed the Temple.
When can appreciate that Jacob’s reaction is quite appropriate for the monumental vision that the dream offered:
"Jacob awoke from his sleep. ‘God is truly in this place,’ he said, ‘but I did not know it.’ He was frightened. ‘How awe-inspiring this place is!’ he exclaimed. ‘It must be God’s temple. It is the gate to heaven!’ — Genesis 28:16-17
Rashi tells us that if Jacob had realized the holiness of the site, he never would have made his bed there for the night. He felt so strongly about the experience that he was compelled to round up twelve stones, set them in place and pour oil on them, marking the place--there’s that phrase again--HaMakom, the future site of the Bet HaMikdash, the Holy Temple.
Jacob called this remarkable spot, the "Gate of Heaven", for good reason. It was also the location of the Even Shetiyah or Foundation Stone, the site of the physical origin of the planet. The stone was part of the bedrock that served as a massive keystone, its other end sunk into the depths of the earth. The formation is said to be secured firmly to the very center of the planet, which is confirmed by Leviticus 20:26, wherein HaShem states, "I have set you apart from the nations to be My own."
When the Holy Temple was eventually built, Jacob's Pillow was located inside the Holy of Holies with the Ark of the Covenant resting upon it.
There is a saying that goes something like this, "The holiest place on the earth is eretz Israel, the holiest place in eretz Israel is Jerusalem, the holiest place in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount and the Holiest place on the Temple Mount is where the Temple stood." That's HaMakom, aka The Place. And within that place is where Jacob rested his head on what was actually the Foundation Stone, where Adam was created. It was where Avraham offered Isaac and the later the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant sat. Is it then any wonder that the world is warring over the ownership of the Land of Israel? It's the reason that Israel's enemies are chanting, "From the River to the Sea" because Esau/Amalek/Edom/the Western World wants to steal the inheritance promised and given to Jacob, an inheritance that included the holiest place on the planet.
HaShem will not allow this Place to fall into the modern bloody “hands of Esau” who falsely claims ownership of this inheritance and attempts to take it violently. This Holiest of All Places represents the hope of humanity, where God’s nation will rebuild a House of Prayer for all nations.