Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
And, behold, the Lord stood alav... (Genesis 28, 13)
On what - Jacob or the ladder? Answer in accordance with the various points of view formulated by our commentators regarding the dream as a whole.
If the ladder in the dream symbolizes the process of history - of nations ascending one after the other to power only to eventually decline into oblivion, then the word “alav” would be referring to the ladder. God is the ultimate master over history; the almighty is a force active in history and its arbiter. In this interpretation, Jacob’s dream has universal meaning and implication. It also has personal meaning for Jacob’s future as one of the fathers of the Jewish people. God promises Jacob a glorious future consisting of a large and great nation within Eretz Yisrael.
The Jewish Philosopher Nachman Krochmal (1785 - 1840) contrasted the Jewish nation to other peoples throughout history. The nations of the world experience birth, growth and eventual decline. With the Jewish people, periods of decline are followed by a renaissance. This interpretation was no doubt influenced by the interpretation of Jacob’s dream by translating the word “alav” as referring to the ladder. Ramban and Sforno follow this approach of translating “alav” as referring to the ladder.
If we translate “alav - “upon him” or “beside him”, then the dream takes on a particular personal meaning and interpretation. It is then referring to Jacob’s plight as he fled into the unknown night from the wrath of his brother Esau. The dream is thus God’s message of deliverance and promise of future success for Jacob. Rashi’s interpretation follows this approach. It would seem that Ibn Ezra’s interpretation could fall into both categories. His point is that all earthly events contain the element of God’s active involvement. Abarbanel, after quoting eight differing interpretations, expresses his opinion that “alav” is referring to Jacob’s personal present plight.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman
veteran yeshiva educator (USA)
now residing in Jerusalem