Consider the story of Jacob’s dream of a heavenly-earthly ladder of angels, in Genesis 28:10-19. In the space of three verses, Jacob seems to be described as waking up two times:
Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely there is God in this place, and I did not know!’ In awe, he said, ‘How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob got up early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put beneath his head, and placed it as a monument and poured oil on its top. And he called the place Beit El, although Luz had formerly been the name of the place.
Why two wakings?
Biblicists might argue that what we have here is the weaving of a Priestly agenda (supporting the idea of a central Temple as the earthly ‘gate of heaven’) into an earlier story about Jacob journeying, camping, and staking a claim to the place where he rested. (In such a reading, the original story would be made up of verses 10-11 + 18-19, with a strong suspicion that the particular name, Beit El, ‘House of God,’ was introduced at the Priestly stage of supplementary composition, along with the dream.) Each of the two component stories has its own moment of waking, and we are left with a compound story containing a waking-verse from each.
More prosaically, from a purely narrative point of view, we might say that Jacob awoke with a start after his dream, then went back to sleep, and woke again later, in the morning, to set up his monument.
But this is Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Midrash is the order of the day, and our Torah reads as it does, however it came to be what it is (and, however that was, there was certainly some integrating intelligence and artistry involved) – and imagine going back to sleep after a dream like Jacob has here! So our question remains: Why does Jacob wake up twice?
Notice the two verbs for waking – and the other verbs that follow each one.
In the first instance Jacob awakens with the verb vayikatz, from a root that connotes a sudden mindfulness – like a warrior shaking off wine, in the simile of Psalm 78:65 – and we might also hear an overtone of ketz in the sense of ‘end.’ This is a moment of transition in Jacob’s inner experience, a certain state of being, on his part, is ceasing to be, and another is beginning. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘saying,’ ‘knowing,’ and ‘being in awe,’ and an implied verb of ‘being’ and 'being present' as well. These are verbs of reflection, verbs of consciousness.
In the second instance, Jacob awakens with the verb vayashkem, which suggests getting up early with a mission to perform, and possibly derives from the root for ‘shoulder,’ shekhem – “to load backs of beasts for a day’s journey,” the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon proposes, by way of etymology. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘taking,’ ‘putting,’ and ‘pouring,’ verbs of action – and the verb of ‘naming,’ which, if not as physically active, is still transitive, affecting the state of something outside of Jacob’s self.
So at first Jacob becomes conscious, and then he acts, imprinting himself and his experience of God upon the place.
What is the nature of the sudden consciousness that leads to such action?
Here I reach to an already existing midrash, which suggests that the angels of Jacob’s dream were going up and down upon Jacob himself. Nouns are always masculine or feminine in Hebrew, and ladder, sulam, is a masculine noun, and so the preposition bo, ‘upon it (the ladder)’ actually reads as ‘upon him’ – a great opening to midrashic possibilities:
Think for a moment of Jacob, soon to be Israel, as a bridge between heaven and earth.
Another interpretation, along the same lines (in the same segment of Bereshit Rabbah, 68:2) says that the possibility of the angels ‘going up and down’ on Jacob means that they were poking him, prodding him, goading him – jumping up and down on him, in an angelic version of Hop on Patriarch. Why did they do this?
The angels ascended into heaven and saw ‘the image of him,’ says the midrash, and then descended below and ‘found him asleep.’
Like a king enthroned, says the midrash – go up to the palace and you find him sitting in judgment, but go out to the outskirts, and you find the king asleep. (In ancient days, before instant telecommunications, the farther away from the seat of power you went, the more attenuated was the influence of the sovereign, the more the king seemed to be asleep.) So the angels, in this midrash are astonished. They come upon a creature made in the image of God; they go up to heaven to check the likeness; they think of the verse, Israel, in whom I [God] shall glorify myself (Isaiah 49:3); they come back down and they wonder: How can this creature be all that if it is asleep? Wake up, and be what you should be!
Think for a moment of Israel, or Humanity, as the image of God asleep in the world.
We are the image of the Sovereign in these outskirts of heaven, or at least we are part of that Presence. And far too often we are asleep to that possibility. And so, far too often, this is a world in which God seems to be asleep, or distant – because we, creatures who should manifest God’s being in this world, and should take part in the work of divinity, are instead inert – in effect, unconscious.
If we were to wake up to all that we might be, and then rise to the tasks that such consciousness enjoins upon us, and truly consecrate the places of our waking as the abode of God, through action, then this world might not be so unlike heaven.
(I am grateful to Lila Vessid, rabbinical student at Hebrew College, for a conversation in our Beit Midrash this morning about Jacob's two wakings.)